NORAD . . . Denver, Colorado
It was surreal, really. Captain Sasha Trudeau stood at attention in the war room with her gaze focused on a point on the wall. She was two thousand feet below the surface of the earth again and surrounded in a granite-encapsulated city. There were no shadows within this fluorescent hell to escape into. Twenty-five-ton steel doors had closed behind her and her team. This was just another one of the military’s citadels, but today it felt like a prison.
Now she understood what Doc had meant: A political schmooze trip on Air Force One to meet the president and the first lady had nothing to do with what was about to go down. The military was, in essence, its own government and its own country. It didn’t matter if a civilian president was the commander in chief, there would always be things known by the Pentagon and the military intelligence community that flew under the radar. This meeting was obviously one of them.
What the president knew and understood was so far removed from the tactical realities of what the Joint Chiefs had cooked up that Sasha felt numb. The new president had been excited to talk to her, curious, and awed by the knowledge that the supernatural existed. They’d met at his insistence. His wife had warmly embraced her, and Sasha had vowed to never wash the shirt that had the first lady’s elegant touch on it. Never in Sasha’s life had she been so proud to serve as in that moment when she was told “job well done” by two people who seemed to have it all . . . intelligence, honor, love for each other, their children, and their country. They were world leaders in her opinion, had respect for other nations, and yet kept it all together as a couple and a family despite the stress that went along with that leadership. Simply being in their presence had instilled hope. Maybe she and Hunter could have that, she’d thought for all of two days . . . until now.
She hated these sessions. Sasha’s mind had latched on to the positive, clinging to it in military silence as her entire mission was lambasted as a complete failure. Talking heads on the video teleconference made her swallow a snarl. She hated VTCs. Old bastards. What did they know about this kind of war? The Cold War didn’t have jack on a confrontation with the supernatural, if the Unseelie or Vampires decided to retaliate.
Sasha looked at the stern expressions that appeared on the huge screen at the end of the war room. The broadcast was coming from multiple sources—the Pentagon and USSOCOM at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida—and everything that was being said made the hair on the nape of her neck bristle as she cut Doc a sidelong glance. He never returned it. That was probably best. One didn’t blink or stutter in the face of U.S. Special Ops Command.
Before the inflexible scrutiny today, she’d been complimented by the president on her brave handling of the situation in New Orleans, despite the human casualties that couldn’t be avoided. The president, a man of reason, had spoken to her frankly, openly, asking her opinion about how they could address potential future threats, as well as her best guess at how they could do PR damage control—knowing the public would freak out.
Down here in the bowels of NORAD was another world. The Pentagon was broadcasting from the tank, their situation room. The whole array of brass was on the teleconference—the freaking secretary of defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the vice chairman, the army, as well as the air force chiefs of staff, plus the chief of naval operations and the commandant of the marine corps. Sheesh. All of her general’s chain of command was present—starting with the U.S. Army Special Ops Com commander from Fort Bragg. This was so not good. She wouldn’t be surprised if General Westford didn’t just retire after this fiasco. Her general was getting his ass chewed out by the secretary of defense . . . and as always, the shit would roll downhill.
But the next words spoken drew Sasha’s full attention to the screen. Disbelief made her slack-jawed.
“This is why we’ve always had a backup team in waiting,” the bulldog-jowled General Rumsford said, glaring into the screen. “Ever since the tragic death of General Donald Wilkerson, we knew there was potential for this project to get out of control, and it finally did.”
Sasha felt her lip beginning to curl but took a slow, steady inhale to keep her cool. Is this the same cleanup squad that mowed down Rod Butler’s entire squad in Afghanistan? Same SOBs that tried to drop Woods and Fisher!
“Now, wait just a minute,” General Westford said, the crimson spreading up his neck to begin to color his ruddy face. He dragged his fingers through his damp blond crew cut and narrowed his hard blue gaze as he leaned forward, slapping a meaty palm down on the polished mahogany. “Yes, there were civilian casualties during this particular operation—but as you well know, and have all experienced in any battle theater, that is bound to happen when dealing with urban warfare. Collateral damage is regrettable but often unavoidable. That is the price of urban warfare. So don’t act like this is some new outcome! With all due respect, each of us in our long careers has experienced this. I stand by my Paranormal Containment Unit. These men and women did an outstanding job in keeping this entire thing from escalating to a level that might have otherwise been catastrophic.”
“Paranormal Containment Unit,” the bulldog reiterated with disdain. “It wasn’t contained, Westford.”
“And neither was Iraq or Afghanistan!” General Westford shot back. “I’ve only got Trudeau, Holland, plus a biotech crew of three hired civil service specialists backing her up, with two soldiers, Lieutenants Fisher and Woods, to keep a lid on a threat that is bigger than all the bull going on in the Middle East and Pakistan combined! Give me more resources, and we’ll have the threat contained.”
“That’s precisely what we intend to do—Colonel Madison and his squad will be the new boots on the ground. This time out we want an all-human squad on this, one that cannot be compromised by potential interspecies affiliations or that we have to worry might flip out under duress—or given the phase of the moon . . . no offense to Captain Trudeau. We would like to offer you an opportunity to continue your fine work in an army staff position, General . . . while Colonel Madison takes over command of PCU.”
“You’re burying me in the army bureaucracy,” General Westford said, pushing back from the table. “You might as well draw up my retirement papers, then. This is an outrage.”
“General,” the secretary of defense said in a conciliatory tone. “Let’s allow cooler heads to prevail before you make such a monumental decision. We value you. Know that. You are not being buried. We need a man of your skill and knowledge on the policy end of this very new threat—because, believe me, the president wants smart people making smart decisions about how to handle all of this. We need a military liaison to the secretary of state, given the potential international issues this paranormal problem raises.”
General Westford didn’t respond but released a guffaw as his noncommittal answer for the moment.
Sasha just stared at the screen, now so angry that she was seeing spots before her eyes. They were replacing her general and pulling her team off the mission? All of the uniforms and the colorful braid on the high-definition-broadcast stuffed chests began to bleed together, but she didn’t blink.
“Sirs, I have to interject,” Doc Holland said, bracing his aged ebony hands against the table. “There are delicate—no, fragile relationships down there in the paranormal community. Have you read Captain Trudeau’s full report? If you send an unfamiliar human team down there with a shoot first, ask questions later mentality, you are asking for military casualties. Even worse, you have no idea what long-standing retaliatory aggression this course of action might create.”
“It has already been decided,” the secretary of defense said calmly, gaining a grim nod from the other Joint Chiefs. “This was a rogue project under the late General Donald Wilkerson, as you are aware, Doctor Holland . . . and while we know that it is difficult to bring closure to your research, the time has come where we must shut down the PCU in its current form in favor of a more strategic, and more secure, way of interfacing with this threat. The moment we all learned about it, a phase-out strategy was set in place . . . but as long as the PCU showed signs of viability, we were willing to go along with the experiment and learn what this new environment—or rather, this new universe—actually held. But with rising political pressure and the growing public alarm, there is only one solution. The PCU has to go dark, and if there are still any targets of value out there in the New Orleans area—on North American soil, for that matter—they have to be eliminated.”
Now Sasha knew they were crazy.
“Permission to speak freely, sirs,” Sasha said as respectfully as possible.
“Permission granted,” the bulldog on the screen barked back.
Sasha hesitated for a moment. She wasn’t directing her comments to Rumsford, but rather toward the more reasonable new secretary of defense, who’d clearly come under General Rumsford’s sway. For a second she wondered how the hell some of the old political hacks got to remain at the decision-making table when there was a fresh, new administration—but there wasn’t time to dwell on that. It was what it was, and the Pentagon didn’t do change well or quickly. Drawing on all the political correctness in her bones, she simply stated the jarring facts.
“Sir,” Sasha said in a monotone voice, “to engage the supernatural community with threat of extermination will start a war on U.S. soil that we, as a nation, are unprepared to fight. It would be akin to dropping a nuclear bomb in the middle of Times Square or, in this case, in New Orleans’s French Quarter. The fallout will be catastrophic, the recovery in half-lives . . . Your primary foes, Vampires and the Unseelie Fae, are immortal, sir.” Sasha dragged her gaze back to the benign point on the wall and lifted her chin.
Pandemonium broke out at the table and on the screen. Finally, after a few moments, order was restored.
“This is why it is imperative that Colonel Madison and his team do an impartial assessment,” the secretary said. “A second pair of eyes, a second report. If Captain Trudeau’s claim has merit, then we will undertake a new course of action. Colonel Madison has already arrived at NORAD and will need you to fully debrief him, Captain. General Westford, we expect your full cooperation in this transition, your request for retirement notwithstanding.”
“And until then, Captain Trudeau is to remain under house arrest,” the bulldog said with satisfaction coating his words. He clasped his thick hands together, obviously enjoying the newly bestowed power that came with his secret new cabinet post as secretary of containment. “Her movement is to be restricted to the base, and she is not to make contact with any of her New Orleans—”
“What?” General Westford shouted. “Are you saying that she and her team are being brought up on some sort of charges?”
“No . . . and ‘house arrest’ may be too strong a term, General Rumsford,” the secretary said calmly. He glanced at the general to his left, making the man concede with a gruff cough. “Captain Trudeau is not under house arrest, per se, but New Orleans is off limits to her and her team until Colonel Madison completes his mission. We would like the captain’s area of operation to remain highly visible and within the state of Colorado until further notice. Colonel Madison’s squad is highly trained, Delta Force, not unlike members of the captain’s team, and he has a blend of support from our military intelligence community as well. His job is to not only assess the problem caused by the last series of incidents, but also to go down there, unhindered by anyone else’s efforts, to develop a public containment strategy. We have got to get this under control. Have you watched the news, General?”
General Westford pushed back farther from the table. “I’ve seen the news, sir.”
“The area is crawling with every crackpot ghost hunter, paranormal investigator, psychic who thinks he can talk to the dead, and journalist who wants to get the money-shot of Big Foot. Civilians are coming out of the woodwork with outrageous claims; everyone who can is trying to get paid for their fifteen minutes of fame. Cell phone video has proliferated on the Internet, and social networking sites are causing additional hysteria, while we’re analyzing what is bogus and what is authentic, which is eating up vital resources in a way we hadn’t anticipated. For damage-control purposes, we need a highly visible black-ops team to go down there, kick in a few doors, rattle a few cages, and hopefully drive what’s underground way underground, so that we can do a full media report to debunk the evidence of any so-called paranormal activity. They have a clear mission—if they encounter anything, contain it or eliminate it. They are not going down there to negotiate with it.”
The secretary released a long and weary breath before continuing. “Captain Trudeau, we thank you for your service, but on this mission, you and your team are hereby relieved of your PCU duty until further notice.”
The Seelie Court . . . New Orleans
Sir Rodney weaved, stumbled, and caught himself against a bedroom tapestry as he made his way toward the dining table in his master suite. Rupert, his trusty valet, dropped the breakfast tray he’d been carrying and rushed over to Sir Rodney’s side.
“Milord, are you ill?”
Sir Rodney waved him off. “Nah . . . probably too much of the ale last night. I’ll be fine.”
Ignoring the monarch’s words, Rupert helped him into a chair and then rushed to the door to call the guards.
“Please call Sir Garth and the king’s top advisors immediately! I fear milord has been poisoned!”
“You’re making too much of a little stumble, old friend,” Sir Rodney called out, but he was barely able to hold himself up where he sat. “It was a wonderful night of debauchery, is all.”
Rupert gently closed the door as the guards rushed off. “Milord, I have been your best man for many a year and have yet to see a night of debauchery turn your blue eyes to pure black.”
“You okay?” Bradley asked, going over to Clarissa quickly and holding her by both arms.
She nodded weakly and then slumped against him. “I’m just a little nauseous,” she said, dabbing at her brow. “Could’ve been the takeout we had last night.”
Bradley felt her brow and stared into her eyes. “Or it could be the residual effects of the possession you experienced a few weeks back when trying to save this team in the shadow lands.”
She hugged him and tried to laugh off his concerns. “Or you could be ultraparanoid, which is why I love you so.”
He stooped down beside her. “I love you, too,” he said softly, “and that’s why I’m paranoid. I saw what that Unseelie black spell almost did to you.”
“Stop worrying,” she said and then winced. “It could be something as basic as a girl getting cramps.”
“Your skin is clammy and—”
“I just need to go to the ladies’ room,” she said, standing with effort.
Unconvinced, Bradley stood with her and began walking with her.
She stopped, turned to him, and smiled weakly. “I know we’re a couple, but there are still some things I’m not ready for you to see—and going into the bathroom with me is—”
“Okay, okay,” he said with a nervous smile. “Then I’ll wait out here for you.”
“Brads, we’re in NORAD, okaaay? Nothing can get down here on the base. It’s demon-protected—”
“Yada, yada, yada,” he said flatly, not moving from the bathroom entrance.
“If the guys see you standing guard on the ladies’ room, they’ll get all freaked out. So why don’t you just go back to the lab, all right? I don’t want to have to explain to Winters, Woods, and Fisher that it was that time of the month, I got a little queasy, and you—”
“Okay, okay . . . for the sake of your privacy, I’ll go back. But—”
“I’ll be fine,” she said, pasting on a smile and then slipping beyond the door.
She waited until she heard Bradley’s footsteps ringing out in the corridor and then rushed into a stall and hurled. Greenish, gooey phlegm bubbled up her throat and spewed into the toilet. The awful taste and hard, brackish smell made her close her eyes with a shiver. But she did feel better. She flushed the refuse away and then hugged herself.
A cold, hard sweat had broken out all over her body, and after checking that her period hadn’t come on, the next worry assailed her. It was time to buy an at-home pregnancy test, even though she and Bradley had been pretty careful . . . then again, almost all the time wasn’t 100 percent.
“Damn . . .,” she murmured and then exited the stall to wash her hands and face. She so did not need this right now, but if she was pregnant, then so be it. If there was anyone in the world she’d be happy to have a child with, it was Bradley. But she didn’t want him to think she’d tried to trap him. She hadn’t. This was unplanned.
She knew how he’d take it. Bradley was so old-fashioned, he’d want to marry her and would insist that she stop doing anything related to the paranormal that could possibly injure their unborn child. As she approached the sink, she shook her head and chuckled to herself. Here she was projecting a whole scenario and she didn’t even have the facts yet. Okay, that was a sign to not do that. “Get the facts first McGill, before you start emotional drama on the team.” Hell . . . maybe she was having a hard bout of PMS.
Clarissa turned on the faucet, washed her hands, and then bent to splash cold water on her face.
But when she lifted her head to dry her face with a towel, she froze. Her blue eyes were pitch black.
Not one word. Sasha would not say one word until after the general said his final piece. Hunter had been so frickin’ right that her elevated blood pressure was causing her ears to ring. She just stared at General Westford once the monitors went black. Fury made her fist her hands at her sides. The desire to flee, to just find a hallway shadow and be out, was so strong that she bit her lip.
Under house arrest? The mere suggestion was absurd, even if the secretary did recant and give her the state of Colorado to roam—WTF? They could kiss her natural wolf ass! And they had fired her general—had reassigned her ally and mentor? She was going to tell her team the bullshit news, go back to her apartment, find Hunter, and then find the nearest bar.
Once she got out of earshot and could get Doc in a room alone, she’d blow. But not now, and not in front of the general. His eyes said it all, even if his tone of voice was gruff. The apology in them made her feel only slightly better. However, the fact that the man’s career had been shredded by one botched mission weighed on her soul.
“This is bullshit, Captain . . . but my hands are tied. Those poor dumb bastards are gonna go down there and get themselves killed if they stumble on the wrong nest.”
“Sir, yes, sir,” she said, not hiding the sarcasm in her tone. It wasn’t directed at General Westford, and he seemed to know that. He caught her inflection with a nod, acknowledging that he felt the same way. It was the most either one of them could say without crossing the insubordination line no matter what they felt.
“Just stay in the area and stay in touch—don’t go dark on us. I suspect we’ll be calling you soon for a rescue-and-recovery mission. I’m not throwing you in the brig or locking you in your damned apartment. You aren’t an enemy combatant and haven’t done anything wrong; I don’t care what they say. And you damned sure aren’t going to flip out into some monster—if that was going to happen, you would have long before now. This is political jockeying and gamesmanship, because this is about to be the new president’s favorite secret initiative. You and I both saw the look on his face when you debriefed him . . . This, Captain, is about power. It’s all about who is going to run the real PCU, and who is gonna get the unlimited black-ops budget to go with it, trust me. But one thing for sure, I’m not going to put a good solid soldier who has risked everything for this country out to pasture . . . just give me a little time to work this out—and keep your nose clean until I do. Right now, I’ve got nothing to lose. I’ll be retired soon enough.”
She stared at General Westford and saluted him. “Thank you, sir.”
“No . . . thank you,” he said and then glanced at Doc Holland. “They don’t understand. Hell, at first I didn’t understand, until you all showed me what was at stake . . . told me things that will never allow me to get another good night’s sleep for the rest of my life. All of us with an ounce of common sense know that Captain Trudeau is right, but that young arrogant prick, Madison, doesn’t know it. That’s the problem.” General Westford shook his head. “I met him this morning when he came on base. Thinks he knows it all. Those poor young bastards that they’re sending into New Orleans will pay the price for the political one-upmanship that’s going on at the Pentagon—but then again, what else is new? That’s just Washington as we know it.”
“It’s suicide,” Doc Holland said, shaking his head. “Fools, all of them. This isn’t any kind of conventional war—this is madness.”
The general let out a weary breath. “No, Doctor—this is fear . . . and fear makes fools of us all.”