Sunday, February 14, 2016

#SampleSunday: The First Chapter (Mostly) of Chemical Agent: A Thriller

My latest release--my 23rd novel, can you believe it?--is available this very Tuesday (or Monday night if you pre-order on Kindle), and as it is Sunday, it's time to give you, the reader, a look into Chemical Agent: A Thriller. As I've said, everything changes in this story. The seventh book in this series is based more on emotion than anything else.

Here we go, folks. Strap yourselves in. Links to pre-order are at the bottom of the post.



Chapter 1
The Warwick Hotel
Lenora Street
Seattle, Washington
Friday, June 13/Saturday, June 14
10:31 p.m. PT/1:31 a.m. ET

With tired eyes turning toward the south, Alexandra Dupuis stood on her suite’s balcony, a grin creasing her otherwise placid face. She felt a slight breeze coming in off Puget Sound ahead of her, and without hesitation, the longtime Director of the CIA inhaled deeply. The sweet, salt-tinged air filled her lungs, the weariness of transcontinental travel slipping gracefully from her shoulders.
What a long day, she thought, and tomorrow is going to be even longer.
The delegation from Washington, D.C. had flown to the state of Washington earlier in the day, the blue and gray fuselage of the famous Boeing VC-25 sliding onto the air strip at McChord Air Force Base shortly after noon Pacific Time. There were numerous events planned for this rather large group; along with Alex, the president, Eric B. Forrister, and his wife, Veronica, their adopted daughter Maryah, the vice president, Lucia DiVito—Alex hoped the vice president was comfortable in her hotel, several streets over, separated in order to maintain the line of succession in case anything happened to the president—as well as Alex’s protégé, Jaclyn Johnson, and her husband, Tom Messingham, had arrived to great fanfare. Not only them, but a cadre of Secret Service personnel and the White House press corps had come toddling along, too. They were all in Seattle—Jaclyn’s hometown—to honor Jaclyn’s father, the late General Edward R. Johnson, a hero of the first Gulf War, a victim of the September 11th attacks, with a statue in Volunteer Park.
In Alex’s mind, it was an honor long overdue: General Johnson was an outstanding cadet at West Point, an outstanding soldier, and an even better commanding officer during his time in the United States Army. The late President Sarah Kendall was one of his many charges, and Alex had grown familiar with the general when she herself served under former CIA head Nathaniel Dyer. There was an instant respect between Alex and the general, a respect she carried to this day.
The sweet memories searing her consciousness, Alex smiled.
I hope I’ve done right by you with your daughter, she thought, her thoughts headed skyward.
Alex leaned her forearms against the wrought iron railings, her gaze catching the floodlights of Safeco Field a few miles away. Jaclyn and Tom were there, their tickets for the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays purchased before the season started. Alex hoped the broadcasters wouldn’t show her there, even though the papers had said she would be in town for the unveiling; she wouldn’t hold her breath, though. She also hoped Tom would enjoy himself, if but a little; she knew Jaclyn would have a grand time seeing her Mariners at Safeco for the first time in nearly a decade and a half.
“Jaclyn, Jaclyn, Jaclyn,” Alex whispered into the night air. There were few cars in the area to distract her, even though she heard a bit of music coming over from the Pike Place Market, not too far away. “Oh Jaclyn, how you’ve grown since I took you away from here.”
Alex’s thoughts wandered back to September 2001, even as the warmth from the steel seeped into her flesh. The country, horrified by what had occurred that morning in New York, in Pennsylvania, and in Washington, had demanded answers. The sitting president had demanded retribution. And while everyone huddled around their televisions as the dark reality of their times flooded their consciousness, Alex had met with her staff in the bowels of Langley.
“The president,” Alex had said as they walked out of the secure elevator, “is going to try to capitalize on our tragedy politically.”
“Huge shocker there, ma’am. He’s a politician. That’s what they do.”
They had entered the bunker. The room was all in gray: soundproof, bug-proof steel surrounded them, so much so that the only method of communication to the outside world was via a red landline phone which only dialed in one direction—to the Situation Room at the White House. There were televisions encircling the room, all tuned to CNN. They had showed the towers in Lower Manhattan belching black-gray smoke, the jet fuel burning. Alex had shuddered, then spoke again.
“He’s going to do several things,” she had continued. “Mark my words: He’ll go after Bin Laden. It’s only a matter of time before he admits he’s behind it; the evidence is right there. ” She had pointed at the television with a light gesture. “Four airplanes used against us, against one of his former targets. That’s a tell. This was no accident.”
“What’s the next thing?”
Alex had tried to swallow the bile threatening to rise to her mouth. The taste of sour milk had lingered on her taste buds. The thought had been on her mind since she received the phone call an hour before.
“The next thing. He will take this opportunity to go after Hussein.”
Her aides had immediately blinked, the surprise evident.
“Saddam?” they had chorused.
“Right in one.”
“Why?”
“It’s quite simple, Dave. Saddam is dancing in the streets of Baghdad right now, especially after what happened ten years ago. The president will rally Congress to his side, and I mean both sides of the aisle. This isn’t unprecedented. It happened in ’41. Everyone and their grandmothers are scared. Shit, all of Congress is scared.” Alex had taken a seat, breathing a little heavy. She had poured herself a glass of water, if only to calm her nerves; she didn’t drink alcohol while working, even in this stressful working environment. She had shot a gulp of water back into her throat, if only to rinse her mouth out. “He will be presidential, I am sure of it. He’ll go to Afghanistan first, strike them hard. Then he’ll go back to Iraq, inexplicably, much like his daddy did. This time, I doubt that Saddam can avoid the military might of the United States of America.”
“And seeing that we haven’t been able to locate General Johnson in the wreckage of the Pentagon,” another aide had chirped, “that means the Army is going to be pissed.”
She had swallowed hard; Alex had drinks with the general and his wife the night before the attacks. She had tried to keep her tears at bay, even now. She needed to remain strong, if not for her sake, for her son’s sake.
“Correct. They’ll get Hussein for making the president’s father look foolish. He’ll say it’s to bring democracy to Iraq.” She snorted. “It has nothing to do with that whatsoever. He’ll go with a lie that says Iraq has weapons of mass destruction. He’ll pin the blame on us when that particular plan goes awry.”
“Of course. Pass the buck.”
Alex had nodded.
“Right. And while he’s doing that,” she had said, “we need to be proactive in this new war on terror, as well.”
No one blinked.
“Suggestions, Madame Director?”
The director had folded her hands on the table. She still hadn’t grown used to people calling her by that title, even after seven long years at the head of the CIA. To her mind and to her heart, Nathaniel was still the Director, even though he had been in the grave since 1994. He would always be the Director, in her eyes. The letter he had left on her—his desk, she reminded herself—remained in her purse, even after seven years. And as much as she wanted to read his words, it wasn’t time yet. Not even in the face of a horrific tragedy such as what had happened on this day would she pull that letter out.
“I have an idea that needs to stay within the confines of this room,” Alex had said, “and it may seem a bit unorthodox to most people.” She had taken a short breath as she kept her eyes on her aides; this, she had known even then, would make or break her career. “There is a young girl in the Seattle area who I feel would be the perfect candidate for this program.”
“A young girl?”
Alex had nodded sharply.
“A girl of 14. She may not look like much now, but with a decade or so of training at The Farm, I’m sure she can turn into one of the best.”
“We can’t just go and snatch a child off the streets and train her to be a secret agent, if that’s what you’re thinking, Madame Director. Don’t you think her parents would have a problem with the United States government stealing their child?”
Alex had felt her throat grow tight as her aide’s accusation hit her ears. Her eyes grew limned with tears. She had closed her eyelids tight, stemming the flow.
“I don’t think,” she had replied once she had opened them, “that will be an issue any longer.”
“An orphan?”
“You can call her that now, yes.”
“Now?”
Alex had firmed her lips and nodded.
“I’m talking about General Johnson’s daughter. Jaclyn.”
Soft moans filled the room. A pen tinkled across the conference table.
“Fuck.”
She nodded again. “Fuck is right. General Johnson and his wife are survived by a teenaged daughter, one who has some family.”
“Wouldn’t it be more prudent to send her to them?”
Alex nodded.
“Yes, I’m sure it would be the smart move to send her to the general’s brother. They aren’t too far away from them, and the girl has some cousins to help her adjust. But I reiterate: I think this is an opportunity that we as an agency cannot let slip through our fingers.” She stood, her fingertips tenting on the table. “We have the opportunity to defeat terrorism and to attack terrorism with an individual born from the ashes of terrorism itself. Don’t you see this opportunity in front of us? We can train this young woman—this orphan—to go after the ones who made her an orphan to begin with.”
Then, as she looked over the heads of everyone in the room to see another replay of the towers tumbling, she lost her cool.
“Can we turn off the fucking TVs?” she had yelled. “How many fucking times do we have to fucking see the fucking towers falling? It’s like the God damn fucking Challenger all over again. We already know what fucking happened.”
Another aide had hustled around the room, turning the televisions off. Alex had felt a vein throb near her temple, her heart ramming the inside of her breastbone as she waited.
“Thank you,” she had said, before taking another deep breath. She had bowed her head and counted to ten, pursing her lips and rubbing them together as she tried to regain control of her emotions. She had raised her head half a heartbeat after she had reached ten. “I’m sorry for that. I’m usually more in control.”
“It’s alright, Madame Director. We’re all a bit fidgety right now.”
Alex had smiled a half-smile.
“True. Anyway, I want to move ahead with this. I think this is the right thing to do.”
“We can’t get to Seattle right now. The president has ordered all flights grounded with SCATANA.”
“He has grounded non-emergency civilian aircraft,” Alex had corrected. “A government-issued Gulfstream on the business of the country’s national security doesn’t count. I’m headed there in an hour.”
“What if the president wants you at a Cabinet meeting when he gets back from Florida?” an aide asked as she turned for the door.
“Don’t worry about that. He’s going directly to New York, then coming home. I’m hoping to get home before he gets back, heavy one passenger.”
“Shouldn’t we tell him what we’re doing? We don’t have the budget for this.”
Alex had shaken her head.
“No. We’re not telling this particular president anything. She’s not even on board yet, and it won’t be during this president’s administration that she’ll be unleashed anyway.” She exhaled. “I’ll tell the next president about her. This one is a little too trigger happy for my tastes. He’ll use her before she’s ready.”
“But Madame Director,” the aide interrupted, “why her?”
“Why her?” Alex had echoed as she turned. “Why her. It’s quite simple, really. Think about it. Say you’re a soldier in the U.S. Army—hell, say you’re a cadet at West Point, and you hear the stories of General Johnson as he rose up the ranks. And some time in the future, you’re at your stationing and you get a call. It’s General Johnson’s daughter, all grown up, and she is in a bit of a sticky situation. You have a group of soldiers, all who idolized the man; the man gave them confidence like you wouldn’t believe. They questioned his orders without flinching. She calls—wouldn’t you answer that call and go to her side as if the order came directly from the general? You bet your scrawny ass you would.”
“The rumor is she’s blind,” the aide had continued, his protest vociferous. “What good would a blind girl be in the fight against terrorism?”
At the door, Alex had smirked.
“You have no idea what the quartermasters are coming up with right now. If you did, you’d gladly pay a little more in taxes every year. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go tell her that her parents are dead.”
Alex had her driver take her to Andrews, the driver not sparing the pedal. And despite some warnings from air traffic control, the Gulfstream took off the evening of September 11, bound for the west coast.
The next morning, September 12, Alex had awoken early, called her then-husband to make sure he got their son off to school, before hopping in her rental car and driving to Renton. It was a rather easy drive headed out of Seattle, all while everyone else headed into the city, the morning rush apparent. She had easily found the home. It was on a side street with a well-manicured front lawn, the house painted baby blue. Another government car, this one from Fort Lewis, had met her there. She had called Lewis on the flight and spoke with the base commander, Colonel David Meadows, informing him of what she had planned to do with General Johnson’s daughter. He wasn’t against it—he had served under the general—and had said he would facilitate it the next morning.
“Before school,” Alex had noted. “I don’t want to deal with pulling her out of class once she gets there.”
“I can let the principal at Lakewood know that you’re—”
“No, commander,” Alex interrupted. “No one outside of official channels can know where she’s going. You may tell her that she is being withdrawn—I’m sure the principal knows that the general is among the dead.”
“I’m sure he knows.” There was a pause. “I can’t believe Eddie and Martha are gone.”
Alex had bowed her head. She didn’t say anything about Martha Johnson’s premonition the night of September 10. Instead, she reached into her purse and felt a piece of tissue paper holding a gold band. She ran her fingers around it, the paper crinkling under her touch.
I’ll give this to her, she had told Martha Johnson, when the time is right. She sighed. That should have been a warning sign, right there. Always trust in a premonition, regardless of what the non-believers say.
“I can’t believe it, either.” She had cleared her throat. “I will see you at the Johnson residence in the morning.” She had hung up without another word.
A pair of soldiers had stood at parade rest at the entrance, all while a few curiosity seekers, knowing that it was the Johnson house, had waited to see what was going on. She had showed identification and had entered the house after they told her the commander was inside. Alex had hid her dismay as she walked in the door.
“We should have done this in the overnight, when I arrived,” she had said to the commander. “That way we wouldn’t have a circus. That’s on me for not thinking.”
“I wouldn’t worry,” the base commander had replied. He was a man of about 50, with short gray hair and a little bit of black mixed in for good measure. “Besides, Jaclyn told me that she was asleep, and the security alarms set. I called her this morning and let her know we were coming.”
Alex had nodded.
“Where is she?”
“She’s in her room.”
“Packing?”
The commander had shaken his head.
“Thinking.”
Alex had paused for a few moments, then nodded, her lips pressed together tight.
“Of course. Of course she is. Lead the way.”
The commander had nodded and turned, leading Alex up the stairs. There were no creaks in these steps. Family photos in wooden frames emblazoned the wall to her left. The photos had shown the general smiling, raising a can of beer to the camera. It was a wooded area with a small lake in the background, pine trees in the foreground. The general was on a lawn chair, stretched out. Martha Johnson was in another photo, peeling off the Saran wrap from a bowl of potato salad. It might have been pasta salad, though. Alex couldn’t wager a guess. And next to both parents was a scrawny blonde-haired girl; the girl had on a pair of sunglasses Alex knew helped give her eyes a rest from the painful rays of the sun—and from any fluorescent bulbs when the family was out and about.
Alex had grinned.
Hope you’re ready for a new life, kiddo, she had thought as she ran her fingers along the frame.
She had hurried the rest of the way as she heard the commander speaking with the girl.
Alex had approached as soon as the commander stepped aside, and as she crossed the threshold, she saw, for the first time, the young woman who would someday put fear in the hearts of terrorists around the globe.
There, sitting on the bed, was a somewhat gawky teenage girl. Alex had noted that the girl’s hair had the color of honey, her skin creamy. Her complexion was as close to flawless as a 14-year-old’s complexion could get, her nose on the coquettish side; Alex had wondered just how it kept those sunglasses on and upright. And while the Director saw the girl had dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, as if she had gotten ready for school just like any other day, she appeared as if she had no interest in going. She held a small teddy bear in her hands; Alex thought it resembled Winnie the Pooh at one point.
Alex smiled.
“Hello, Jaclyn,” she had said. “My name is Alexandra Dupuis. I’m an old friend of your mom and dad’s.”
Jaclyn had turned her head.
“Hi.”
“I hope you know that we’re very sorry for your loss.”
The girl had taken a deep breath at that. Alex had looked for any signs of tightening eyes and quivering lips, but surprisingly, nothing appeared. It looked like the girl was in a daze. The girl’s cheek, though, did twitch a couple of seconds later.
“Thank you.”
“May I sit down?”
The girl had nodded, and Alex had parked herself on the edge. Whatever pains were in her feet evaporated just by sitting down.
“Have you been OK?”
Jaclyn had given her a soft shrug of her shoulders.
“I guess.”
“Has anyone checked on you?”
This time, she shook her head. She still hadn’t lifted her head to look at Alex.
“Doesn’t your father’s brother live around here?”
Jaclyn had offered a little nod.
“I don’t think Uncle Bill knew that mom and dad were headed out. At least I don’t think so.”
Alex had made a note of that. That would explain the head shake, she thought. Poor girl.
“Have you been to school?”
“Yes. I don’t skip school. Never have.”
“So you went yesterday, even after everything that went down.”
This time, the skin around Jaclyn’s eyes had tightened a bit. The head had drooped a little more, as if she had tucked her chin as close to her chest as she could.
Alex had grimaced at her stupidity.
Damn you, Dupuis, she thought. Not the exact time to use that terminology. What would Nathaniel tell you? Be a little more sensitive, you jackass.
“I’m sorry I used that phrasing,” she had said. “I want you to know that I’m not a truant officer or anything. I work for the CIA.”
This got Jaclyn’s attention. She had gasped and looked at Alex. The Director had noticed the tear streaks even through the girl’s dark sunglasses.
“You’re a spy?”
Alex couldn’t help but let a grin spread.
“Kind of. You can say I’m the head spy in our country.”
“Who are you spying on now? The people that took down the towers? The ones who plowed into the Pentagon?”
Alex had nodded. Her heart had fluttered at the mention of the Pentagon.
“Yes, and no. Our agency is looking into all possible leads, working with the authorities in New York and D.C. to try to find out who was behind it all.”
Jaclyn’s face had fallen a little, as if she had hoped the country’s response would be rapid.
“Oh.”
The pair had sat in adverse silence for a few seconds before Jaclyn spoke again.
“I had hoped they would have gotten out,” she had said softly. Alex had heard every word. “I had hoped that they would have called last night. I figured that the cell service was overloaded. I thought, ‘OK, they’ll call this morning.’ I stayed by the phone; shit, I practically slept on it. Oh, I’m sorry for swearing.”
Alex had waved it off with a grin.
“Don’t worry, sweetie. No one will know.”
“I didn’t even go to practice yesterday; I told coach that I had some women’s issues, and she understood. I got home, I checked the answering machine.” She shuddered. “Nothing. So I waited. Into last night, I waited. Made myself some cereal. Mom had left some chicken, ziti, and broccoli in the fridge, but I didn’t want to touch that just yet. And then Dave called me. I thought it was Mom or Dad at first; even answered it, ‘Mom?! Dad?!’” Alex then saw the tears dripping out from underneath the girl’s sunglasses. She had sniffed hard, her nose full. Her lips had turned into sharp edges, the corners turned down as the tears continued. Alex noticed her heart had begun to race; she had wondered why this girl, this 14-year-old girl, would open up to her like this. She didn’t know Alex from Adam; Alex only knew of her from the tales Martha and the general had told her. Why did she trust her so much? She remained silent and let Jaclyn speak; she had somehow turned from the Director of the CIA into a guidance counselor as soon as she had perched herself on the edge of Jaclyn’s bed. “Dave said that he needed to see me this morning, and that it was about Mom and Dad. I told him that I needed to know right that minute.” A hard, long sniff—then a scream that Alex knew that she would never forget for as long as she lived. “He said they were dead! The fucking terrorists killed them!”
Alex had bit her lip as the girl’s grief snapped apart. She had flung herself forward onto the bed, her face buried in the comforter as her tears flowed. As footsteps approached, Alex had brought her hand over and put it on the girl’s back in a comforting manner. The base commander had appeared at the door, unbidden, with a few tissues in his hand; he had passed them over. Alex had nodded her thanks as she took them. He had ducked out into the hall once again.
She had waited until the girl had finished crying before she spoke again. Jaclyn had wept until she shook, her flesh trembling, the saline draining her. As soon as she lifted herself back up into a sitting position, Alex passed the tissues over. Jaclyn offered a mumbled “Thank you” before she blew her nose.
Alex had taken a deep breath as the girl filled the tissues. She had come to the reason of her visit, but she had to be careful: she was an adult in a position of power, and she didn’t want to seem like she was misleading her. It was okay to sway her to her side, but no, she needed to lay everything out for the girl. She couldn’t leave anything out.
“It is okay to grieve, Jaclyn,” she had finally said, “and your parents deserve every ounce of your grief. But can I tell you something?”
With the relatively clean sides of the tissues, Jaclyn had dabbed at her eyes and nodded. She had pulled the sunglasses away by a few centimeters; Alex heard a slight wince as the daylight, which slipped through Jaclyn’s drawn shades, hit the girl’s eyes. She had noticed that the retinas were clouded.
Alex pursed her lips again.
“There are ways to channel your grief to get revenge.”
“How?”
This is it, Alex thought. She swallowed her heart back down.
“Your father would want you to fight for us. I want you to fight for the CIA.”
Jaclyn had shaken away her confusion.
“How? I’m only 14.”
Alex wet her lips.
“I’m starting a program back in D.C. At the Farm, actually, in Virginia. It’s a program that will see us train the new line of spy. A Super Spy, if you will. A spy born from the ashes of terrorism itself, one who’ll stop at nothing to thwart the ones who wish to cause harm through fear.”
Jaclyn had stared at her through the sunglasses, Alex knew, as if appraising her. The croak in her voice, though, left her.
“How long will the program last?”
Alex had exhaled through her nose and gave the girl a soft smile.
“The rest of your life.”

There is so much more to tell in this story, which I hope you enjoy and recommend to friends and co-workers and anyone else you meet. Have a great weekend, folks.

Book Day is almost here. Can you smell it? Can you feel her breath on the nape of your neck?

Chemical Agent: A Thriller on Nook (Save this post and I will link you to it on Tuesday; or join the mailing list!)