Excerpt - Chapter One
Shenandoah Mountains, VA.
600 feet beneath the surface
6:45 AM EST
Southern girls could charm the pants off a scarecrow.
Dr. Sydney Hale was only trying for one US Marine guard. She didn’t
want him sans his camouflage uniform, of course. She drew the line
at robbing the cradle. She just wanted to soften him up enough to
let her go above ground for some fresh air. But when he saw her
coming down the long corridor, Corporal Tanner snapped to attention
and gave her that ‘no one gets past on my watch’ look.
Not a good sign.
“Come on good lookin’,” Sydney said with a smile.
“Let me through.”
“I can’t, ma’am.” His gaze remained straight
ahead. “Wait for the end of the shift like the rest of the
“That’s a long time off, Corporal. We’ve been
cooped up since before midnight. Besides,” she cocked her
hip, “I’ve been going up topside for two years, Corporal.
You’d think a body’d get used to the routine.”
Only his gaze shifted. “My entire life is routine, ma’am.
I like routine.”
He was trying hard to be stern, bless him. “I thought Marines
craved adventure, danger?”
“Working down here with all those chemicals is danger enough.
I want an enemy I can see and shoot . . . ma’am.”
She understood that. Surrounded by chemicals was tough work. Surrounded
by the elements of Sarin Gas was quite another. Wanting to see the
sky more than chat about dangers and the ethics of warfare, she
moved past him and stood near the stainless steel elevator disguised
behind artificial cinder block. She tapped her foot. When he didn’t
key her in, she folded her arms and gave him her best boss-to-underling
He held tight to his resolve for about three seconds, then folded
like a retriever under a petting hand. Growling under his breath,
he punched the codes and inserted the key, then glanced behind him
to check if the corridor was clear. Fake cinder blocks slid back
to show the steel lift.
“Do I have to search you?”
She held up the pen light and water bottle. The granola bar he
could see sticking out of her pocket.
Syd leaned close. “Was it my smile this time, Tanner, or
my hard ass look?”
He snickered. “Hard ass? You?” The door hissed open.
“To be honest . . . it’s your tight ass in that short
skirt.” Shaking his head, his gaze locked on her behind as
she stepped inside. “Sweet . . . ma’am.”
She grinned, facing him.
“I’m gonna be dragged before my C.O. if you get caught,”
he warned softly.
“I’ll say I forced you. Pulled rank. Pitched a hissy
He made a face, folding his arms and just staring. Nothing could
get past this guy, she thought. Armed to the teeth, he towered over
average people, and her by about nine inches.
“Stay out of sight.” He glanced back again when he
heard something. “I swear I don’t know why I give into
“Because you want to get into my panties.”
He flashed her a grin that brightened his features. Oh to be ten
years younger, she thought.
“Is it working?”
The doors started to close. “No.” She winked. “But
then, Marines never give up, do they?”
She heard a soft ooh-rahh before the door sighed closed
and she leaned back against the steel hull. Nothing like being locked
inside your lab like a rat, she thought and couldn’t even
feel the elevator shoot to the surface. When the door opened, she
hurried down the short corridor of rock, then pushed on the outer
escape hatch. She couldn’t count the times she’d missed
it coming back down because it was disguised to look like a pile
of dead logs and vines.
Cloak and dagger spy stuff. She hitched up her jacket to pull her
notes from the waist of her skirt, then twisted off the top of her
water bottle. For a moment, she stood still and inhaled the unfiltered,
un-reconstituted air, then she moved between the trees, her steps
high. Shoulda worn jeans, she thought, instead she wore her best
black shirt and a new Dior blouse. Because she was being inspected
today, as well as the facility. She hated that once a year people
who knew next to nothing about her work would be prying into her
files, looking into the way she ran things six hundred feet below
the surface. And pull her funding if they didn’t like what
they found. The inspectors weren’t due to arrive for another
three hours. Let Handerson take care of it, she thought. It’ll
make her assistant feel official.
Sitting on a rock and leaning back against a mossy tree, she propped
her feet on a rotting log. The hint of the rising sun coated the
world in a hazy purple glow. Clouds bumped and threatened rain.
Time strolled by out here. Closing her eyes, she snacked on a granola
bar. Low carbs are a waste for good calories, she thought and wondered
if Tish would join her for a decent breakfast. She awarded herself
five minutes of empty thoughts, listening to the breeze push against
the dry leaves. Then she snapped on her mini flashlight and studied
the latest test results, excited enough to know she was a couple
tests away from a perfect formula. Mentally calculating the process,
the degree changes she’d take next, her palms went clammy.
Gulping water, she blinked at the print out, reading it twice.
Oh my God. I did it.
6:45 AM EST.
A forty-forty rifle cradled in his arms, Jack sat in the tree stand,
needing coffee and contemplating his life as he usually did when
he was stuck in a tree waiting for deer to conveniently cross his
path. Since returning to the states, his life had gone from dull
to boring so he skipped dissecting it and watched the terrain below.
Thinning the deer population for Fish and Game was never a challenge.
Hunting one deer, that was sport, and some good eating.
A whisper of conversation came over the radio. Jack put it to his
ear. “Radio silence mean anything to you shit heads?”
“Sure, in combat. Where it counts.” Lyons. Jack could
tell by his Georgia accent.
“What I want to know is where are all the deer that are getting
in the way of tourism?”
Jack whispered into the radio. “Flapping your jibs is scaring
them off, Decker.”
“Silent but deadly you ain’t, Deck,” Lyon’s
“I crawled out of bed for this?” Decker ragged back.
“We all did.” Mateo, Jack recognized.
“Unlike your bed, Martinez, mine wasn’t empty.”
Despite the nose that had been broken more than once, Decker’s
‘braces till he was seventeen’ smile drew women. Jack
wondered if his mama knew her investment was paying off for her
“The question is, did she care if you left?”
“Can’t say. I’m a gentleman,” Decker said
and the other three snorted. If Decker’s bedpost wasn’t
notched, Jack’d be surprised.
“It’s more than quiet out here, sir.”
That’s what he liked about it. Silence, the chance for meandering
thoughts, life-altering decisions. But with too much company, he
wasn’t getting any of that today. “Keep your yaps shut
for the next hour and we’ll move down the mountain two clicks.”
“Is that an order . . . sir?”
Jack leaned his head back and smiled through camouflage netting
covering his face. “Does it have to be, Gunny Lyons?”
The radio went silent. Jack stuffed it in his leg pocket and practically
ached for coffee. The breeze chilled the air around him, and when
he heard movement from below, he sat up higher for a look, quietly
shifting the rifle to his shoulder. Bingo. He sighted down the scope
and put the doe between the cross hairs. He pulled the trigger.
The crack echoed and the deer dropped like a stone. Jack radioed
his buddies before climbing down and heading toward the carcass.
People should be warned when their luck was about to change. When
she dragged her butt out of bed to work six hundred feet below the
surface of Luray Caverns, Sydney should have listened to that inner
voice telling her to stay put, call in sick, and languish the day
away with books, a pint of Hagan Daas and her trusty vibrator.
When the elevator doors shot open on her floor, her first thought
was an explosion. Smoke engulfed her, stinging her eyes, cloaking
everything. For a second, it was deadly quiet. Then Cpl. Tanner
smacked into her, his dead weight dragging her to the ground.
“Chris! Oh Jesus.”
Blood flowed from a hole in his chest and onto her. She ripped
open the man’s utility uniform and frowned harder at the Kevlar
vest. A neat hole pierced right through it. She yanked the vest
open, Velcro tearing loudly. She covered the wound with her hand
and blood bubbled up between her fingers.
It’s in his lungs. She could hear it rattle inside
She cupped his face, checked his eyes. “Don’t die,
Corporal, that’s an order.” Her gaze flicked wildly
around the corridor; a body dressed in black lay on the floor beneath
the haze of smoke. She got to her feet, trying to drag him into
the elevator. But she couldn’t move him across the threshold.
Smoke and frustration made her eyes tear.
Blood trickled out his mouth. The sound of gunshots with silencers
echoed back to her like a dozen soft pops. Bad guys. Coming this
way. The Marine struggled to talk, but only gurgled, sluggishly
lifting his weapon and pressing it into her body, into her hand.
She knew what he was trying to do. “I’m not leaving
He closed his fingers over her hand. “Ammo, right . . . leg
pocket.” He coughed. Blood splattered.
She found it, cocking the weapon and stashing the ammo in her waistband.
“You gotta help me help you, Chris.”
His eyes were bleak with his coming death. “Run.”
She couldn’t. He was young and alive. She refused to leave
him, gripped him under the arms, and pulled. Footsteps pounded on
the stone floor and she didn’t know if it was a rescue or
his killers. She rolled him inside and smacked the panel. The doors
“Codes, Chris. Gimme the codes!”
Weakly, he held up fingers and she pushed reset, then jabbed numbers.
From the door at the end of the long cement hall, a man in head-to-toe
black appeared, stepping over a body, and moving toward the elevator.
When he saw her, he sprinted.
“Come on! Come on!” She hit the panel hard. The man
stopped, widening his stance to sight down the long pistol. I’m
not gonna make it. Sydney swallowed hard, lifted the gun and
fired first. The pistol’s kick threw her back against the
steel wall. The elevator door shut and this time, she felt the unit
shoot to the surface. She took a deep breath, shoved the pistol
into the waistband of her skirt, then crouched. “Chris. Chris?”
His eyes fluttered for a second. “A danger . . . I could
Her heart broke right there, but she forced a smile. “You
did good, Corporal.” She stroked his cheek. He was already
growing cold. “Who were they, Chris?”
His eyes glazed and she checked his pulse, then choked when she
didn’t find one. Oh God. Dead, dead, dead, pulsed through
her brain. She tried CPR but his lungs were filled with blood.
She couldn’t imagine what might be going on down below. Her
friends. Handerson, Piccolo, Dysart? Harmless chem-rats like herself.
She swiped at her tears, her hands covered with his blood and for
the last few seconds of the ride top side, she lovingly held the
dead marine in her arms.
When the elevator stopped and the door hushed open, Syd kissed
Chris’s forehead, laid him gently down, then stepped out.
Instantly she spun back and tried to stop the doors from closing
so she could lock the unit on this level. The thick metal nearly
took off her arm and she jerked back, cursing.
It would go back down and they’d know of the escape route.
She gripped the gun, turned and hit the ground running. She needed
a phone, cops, NSA and anyone else she could gather. She busted
out the hatch and into the forest, running toward lower ground,
for the main road over a mile away. Branches yanked at her clothing,
holding her back. She tripped and fell, tore her jacket sleeve and
scratched her arm. The gun flew from her hand, and she scrambled
to find it.
Distant thrashing from the woods snapped out a warning. Frantically,
she dug under the leaves for the gun. Her fingers closed around
the metal grip and she pushed to her feet. She chanced a look back.
Men in black were heading directly toward her.
And they were armed way better than she was.
She booked, the Marine’s nine-millimeter heavy in her hand.
Her legs throbbed with strain, her lungs near bursting. They
killed Chris. Innocent, flirting twenty year-old Chris. Rage
pushed over fear and she ran harder.
Jack walked down the mountainside with the dead deer across his
shoulders. One already lay in his truck, a half-mile down the mountain.
He stopped to radio his buddies, and when he didn’t get anything
but static, he moved to higher ground. A sound drew him around and
the weight of the doe nearly toppled him backwards. His gaze scanned
the area, first low, then higher up the hill.
“Now there’s a picture you don’t see every day.”
A woman in a suit jacket and skirt running down the hillside. He
got a look at her face, her hands. Scared and armed. Dangerous combination
in a female. She was bleeding. He tossed off the deer, and radioed
Decker. “Fan out, guys, we have an intruder and she’s
armed, hurt and heading toward you.”
Then he saw the armed men following her.
Jack took off toward the woman, running to intercept her. Her assailants
ducked under trees and one man took aim. Jack lunged for the woman,
knocking her to the ground and covering her with his body as bullets
Beneath him, she struggled and howled. He tore the weapon from
her hand and covered her mouth, his weight pressing on her. “US
Marine!” he said close to her ear. “US Marine!”
She made a pitiful, relieved sound and went slack beneath him.
Jack scanned the area, released her, then motioned her toward the
Sydney rolled to it, crouching, and trying to keep her granola
bar down. “Give me the gun.”
“Are you hurt?”
She glanced at the bloodstains. “No. Give me the gun.”
“What the hell is going on?”
“Give me the weapon!”
Without taking his gaze off the terrain, the man covered in ferns,
leaves and branches kicked it toward her. Sydney grabbed it, checked
the load, wondering what the hell he was doing here in deep cover
camouflage. Another shot fired. Quiet. Deadly. Like the whoosh and
click of a sliding door. It pierced the tree above her head.
“Go!” Lying on the ground, Jack radioed his pals. No
answer. His gaze remained on the attacker’s location. Where’d
the hell the bastard get to? He inched closer to her. “Down
the mountain, there’s a black truck.”
“Don’t stay here! Jesus! They’re not going to
let you walk away!”
He scowled. “I say again, lady, what the fuck is going on?”
“I don’t know!”
Someone shouted, but it wasn’t English. Shots pierced the
ground near his arm, and he returned fire. The sound of a bullet
impacting the body was muffled under the backfire of his weapon.
Sydney heard the cry of pain and seconds later, the peppered spit
of bullets chipped and thunked into the ground and trees. The Marine’s
attention snapped to her, but she couldn’t see behind the
“Who are these people?” he demanded.
“Who cares! They’re trying to kill us! Come on!”
Syd took off toward the truck.
Jack slid backwards on the ground, then stood behind a tree before
racing a few yards behind her. Silencer enhanced gunfire cut around
them. Hell of a morning, he thought. The woman lost her balance,
slid to the ground and he grabbed her up, and together, they ran.
Why were they after her? Who were ‘they’ and where the
hell did she come from? He’d been on this mountain since before
dawn and hadn’t seen anything but deer and a few chipmunks.
The armed men had just appeared.
When they reached the truck, Jack surveyed their path, then pulled
off the Gilly hood, reached inside the truck bed, and flipped back
Sydney nearly lost that fight with her granola bar when she saw
the dead deer in the back.
“You can’t be serious.” She winced at her own
voice. Like saving her life wasn’t worth lying with a dead
deer? She climbed onto the flat bed. The scent of blood filled her
nostrils and sank into her heart.
Her savior was inside the cab, rummaging. “What are you doing?”
she shouted and tried to inch away from the glassy stare of the
deer lying beside her. “Let’s get out of here!”
Syd held onto the pistol so hard her knuckles whitened.
“I have three buddies out there and I haven’t heard
from them since you came on the scene. Stay put.”
“Stay? They’re coming this way!”
“If you keep yelling they will be,” he snapped, then
tossed her a small, green plastic medical kit. She frowned. “Your
arm,” he said, then whipped the tarp over her and the carcass.
Pulling the camouflage Gilly suit back on, Jack left his rifle
behind and kept his 9mm. If he wasn’t working with the Fish
and Game, he would have left it at home. Now he was glad he hadn’t.
He headed toward Decker’s last locale. The woman’s attackers
were still near. He could smell them. Their last meal and new fabric.
To them he’d smell like stag piss, so he wasn’t too
worried. The Gilly suit did its job.
He moved toward Decker’s location first, low and quiet, his
time spent covering his own back. When he approached, the man was
sitting, his shoulder braced against a tree, his rifle across his
lap. He was too still. A sick feeling washed over Jack as he scanned
the area, then knelt beside his friend. The blood splatter and the
scent of scorched flesh were hard to miss.
He pulled off the hood. Jesus. Jack turned his face away and choked.
Decker was dead, half his face blown off. He breathed hard, struggling
for focus, to not lose this battle in himself and go nuts. Forcing
himself to look around, he checked the body of his friend. A single
shot to the back of the head. Jack’s gaze ripped over the
ground. No foot prints, no struggle. Nothing to follow. Snipers.
Jack looked to the trees, the high ground. The entire forest offered
The shooter could’ve been anywhere.
Rage rocketed though Jack’s blood as he thought of the woman.
The bitch. She’d set them up for this. Anger and adrenaline
pumped through him. Leaving the area untouched for the police, he
moved fast and low, covering the next hundred yards. They’d
planned it that way, face north and stay close so they didn’t
accidentally shoot each other. Ah jeez, Jack thought and
wanted to stop and howl and mourn his friends.
When Jack found Martinez dead, he knew Lyons would be, too. But
he had to find him. When he did, his heart broke. All three of his
friends, each with one shot to the head. Each still held their weapons
and there were no footprints that weren’t theirs, no struggle.
That meant the bullet had come from long range with a laser sight.
Jack hadn’t heard a thing. No backfire meant a custom silencer,
he thought, blinking back his emotions and running toward his truck.
To the source of his grief.
He aimed his pistol on the lump in his truck bed. Those guys in
the woods had done the shooting, but the woman would know why. Jack
jabbed the body. “Gun first, toss it out.” No movement
and Jack yanked back the 9mm slide. “Weapon first. Slow, hands
up!” When the woman refused to move, Jack thought for a second
whoever killed his pals, had come back and killed her.
He yanked on the tarp.
The little bitch was gone.
Jack wanted to hit something, shoot someone. He grappled with his
temper, his outrage, carefully laying his hands on the tailgate,
his finger still on the trigger. He realized now his shot at the
deer had alerted the shooters to their presence. He’d been
point, further north than the others. And now his friends, three
men he’d trusted with his life were dead, executed like dogs.
He’d no idea why, and his only clue to the truth lay with
His eyes burned and Jack thought of the wives he was going to have
to face, the mother he’d have to tell that her son had been
murdered. It was his duty. He’d survived. By sheer luck, he
was still standing. But inside, he was dying.
Someone’s going to pay.
He’d save his revenge for just that moment.
He surveyed the territory, weapon out. Shooters were still out
there. He took a step and beneath his feet, the ground trembled.
7: 18 am
Agent Gabe Cisco glanced at the ringing cell phone attached to
his dash. “Too damn early for a mess,” he muttered and
hit the call button. “This had better be good, I haven’t
had coffee yet.”
“Mother is down. The Cradle has fallen.”
“Good enough sir?”
“Details.” Cisco listened to the sketchy facts as Agent
Wickum spelled them out. It was bad. Internal alarms unresponsive.
No contact from the sentries. Air supply couldn’t be monitored.
At least there weren’t any civilians at the park yet. It didn’t
open till nine. He hoped the tour buses hadn’t made it near
yet. But first things first, the people inside the laboratory.
“Priority one. Close off all entries to the park. Shut it
down two miles down the mountain.” Strays, Cisco thought,
he was going to get strays off Skyline Drive in the area. “No
one gets in or out. No one. Plain clothes, no military. We don’t
want to scare the locals. Call it a gas leak. I want a man at every
store, gas station and out-house in the area. Canvas the mountain
in a two-mile radius. Infrared and visual. I’ll authorize
helicopters. Bring in the bomb squad, but we search for survivors
outside the Cradle and isolate them. Do not allow anyone to get
“Even the bomb detection?”
“Even them. We don’t know yet what we’re dealing
with.” Bomb squads expected explosions, not what was down
in that lab. He checked the time and knew it would take him at least
an hour to get there. “I want you on a chopper to meet me
at helo pad two. You drive my car to the site.”
“What about the FBI, sir?”
“They aren’t aware. It’ll be forest rangers and
local cops first if anyone’s hurt. Keep them back. Say nothing.
This is my ball game.” He hated being questioned. It was his
job to question, to secure secrets, to hide them if necessary. And
if the Cradle really had fallen, this mistake was going to take
some fast moving. “Wickum?”
“Still here, sir.”
Cisco could hear the man breathing hard. “Get a CBC team
on stand by.”
Gabe cut the line and steered the car toward the Cradle.
A truck rolling past shook the asphalt under her feet. Above her,
gray clouds billowed. Rain would be just so fitting, she thought
and kept walking. She pulled her jacket closed to cover the blood
smeared across her shirt, but she smelled it. It was in her hair,
seeping into her skin. Hurrying into a convenience store, she glanced
at the clerk, then slipped into the restroom. She locked the door
and sighed back against it, feeling ridiculously safe. Pushing off,
she walked the three steps to the sink and gripped the edge. She
couldn’t look at herself in the cracked mirror. She’d
see more evidence of Tanner’s death if she did.
Chris’s face flashed in her mind, like a snapshot, clear,
quick. Then the man in the hall, the ice blue eyes in a black hood,
pointing a gun at her. She’d never forget the way his eyes
had almost glowed as he aimed at her heart. She hoped her shot got
him between the baby blues. But she doubted it. It was the first
time she’d ever held a gun.
The Marine covered in foliage like a Yeti was almost stranger than
the rest of her morning. Why was he wearing a Gilly suit? Snipers
wore stuff like that. If he was part of the attack, then why save
her life. She pulled the weapon from her skirt, wondering why no
one had noticed it-- since her jacket wasn’t big enough to
conceal it well. Her hand trembled as she laid it on the edge of
the sink. Her fingers were crusted with drying blood. Suddenly,
she turned to the toilet and lost the fight with her granola bar.
She choked and coughed, then rinsed her mouth and her face. She
washed the blood from her hands. The water turned bright pink and
she forced herself to look in the mirror. Her blouse was stained
with blood but most of it was low, and she buttoned up her jacket.
Smoothing her hair back, she picked out leaves and twigs, then brushed
at her skirt and jacket, wincing as she hit the cut on her arm.
Stripping out of her torn pantyhose, she pitched them in the trash.
She replaced the gun in her waistband, frowning when something
crackled. She reached behind herself and expecting leaves, she got
her notes. Oh God. This information was never supposed to leave
the Cradle. Stuffing it back into place, she matched it with the
gun and left the restroom. Follow procedure, she told herself as
she walked immediately to the phone at the back. A TV blared from
somewhere in the front of the store. A bell jingled when someone
came in. A couple of people shopped up and down the narrow aisles.
Early tourists. She heard a child fussing, then glanced at a little
boy trying to reach the slush machine. She was tempted to lean out
and help him. Instead, she turned her back and dialed.
The line didn’t even ring. “9854-Kilo,” she blurted.
“The Cradle is down.”
“Are you injured?”
“No. Get me out of here.”
“Where are you?”
People were staring. She cupped the phone. “Where the hell
do you think I am, dammit!”
“Please state your position, Miss Hale.”
She was barely holding it together and his ‘calm the women
folk’ tone shredded her last nerve. “It’s Doctor
Hale. I’m at the convenience store past the third mark. Now
get me out of here. There are killers on that mountain!”
“Rendezvous at mark eight.”
Sydney frowned. “There’s nothing there.”
“We’ll come for you.”
The line went dead. Sydney hung up, daring a glance around. No
one noticed her. Trying to look like she belonged when she didn’t,
she pushed her hair back and walked toward the front as if she had
a car waiting. Outside, she forced herself not to run, kept her
pace even, and lowered her arms to keep from clutching her churning
stomach and looking more obvious than she was.
“Fine. It’ll be fine.” Like hell.
What the attackers might have taken from the facility really terrified
her. The cold room was supposed to be impenetrable. But then, so
was the Cradle. Her mind shifted to the man in the Gilly suit. She
hoped he’d gotten the hell out of there. He’d been stupid
to go back. But then, he was a Marine. Which meant courage most
often won out over personal safety.
Considering what had happened, it was a little too convenient to
think that an armed Marine, complete with buddies, were in the area.
A four-man team. Snipers maybe? It was a US government project.
Her mind sifted, plucked at information. It’s what she did
for a living. Gather data, theorize. Experiment, test, try a new
route. If this had been a chemical reaction she could have figured
that out easy. But she had a result without the cause. Why hit the
Cradle? Why kill a bunch of tech nerds?
Okay here’s your stupid card, Syd. It was top top secret.
That alone attracted bad guys. But the Cradle was more covert than
the NSA, and aside from an elite group of military and finance council
officials, only a couple of hand picked agents knew about it’s
Now everyone would.
Sydney stopped at the appointed mark, glanced up and down the road,
then did as ordered. She stepped into the forest to wait.
She knew what those people were after. The elements in the cold
room. Maybe the bomb. No one was supposed to know about either.
She touched the notes wedged into her panties. If they were after
her research, then they had an incomplete formula.
She had the rest.
And now, she had the only copy.
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