Three Minutes to Midnight

THREE MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT
A.J. TATA
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
For my brother, Bob, and his wonderful wife,
Anne Ferrell, who have always believed in me . . .
CHAPTER 1
U.S.
A
RMY
R
ESERVE CAPTAIN
M
AEVE
C
ASSIDY RAN FROM THE
interrogation room into the parking lot of the secret compound on Fort Bragg, North Carolina. She could hear boots slapping on the finely waxed and buffed floors of the military facility until the door slammed shut behind her, sounding like a gunshot. Less than twenty-four hours returned from Afghanistan, she had already retrieved her car from the deployment lot. The men who were chasing her had asked her questions with a threatening undertone.
“Did you bring any classified information back with you?”
“Did you help the U.S. government steal natural gas from Pakistan?”
“In country, did your relationship with your CIA handler, ‘Jim,' ever turn sexual?”
“Are you concerned about the safety of your husband, Pete, and daughter, Piper?”
“Are you aware of six natural gas container ships that have departed Karachi, Pakistan, bound for the United States?”
Yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes
, she had thought but had never answered. That was when she'd run. Unaware of who these men were or why she was required to meet with them as part of her redeployment processing, Maeve had stood and run, catching them all by surprise.
A track star in high school and at North Carolina State University, Maeve created distance between herself and her pursuers and slid over the hood of her SUV as she heard gunfire in the distance. Could be a training range or it could be people shooting at her, she figured.
Inside the SUV, she pressed the ignition button and slapped the gear selector into drive. She sped toward the gate with the single cantilevered arm blocking her egress. She knew there were probably tire shredders that the gate guard could activate, but she was banking on her head start.
No such luck. As she approached the guardhouse, she watched the shredder bare its teeth facing in her direction, meaning her tires would be ripped apart if she drove over them. She pulled to a stop at the guardhouse, knowing that the security personnel were simply glorified rent-a-cops. She lowered her window and gave the overweight man in white shirt and gray slacks her most charming smile.
“In kind of a rush, sir. Mind opening the gate?”
In her periphery she watched two men dash across the parking lot toward her.
“Was ordered to close the gate.”
“How about this order, sir?” She brandished her officer's 9 mm Beretta from beneath her seat. She had chambered a round before going into the building, unsure of what might occur. Her instincts had proven good.
“Seriously, lady . . .”
Maeve fired a shot at the man's communication and television console, shattering the device.
“I
am
serious. Two seconds. Open the gate. Next bullet is in your head.”
The man pressed a button, and the teeth lowered on the shredder while the metal arm rose. Maeve sped through the gap, then made a series of turns that took her beyond the Fort Bragg drop zones and into the town of Southern Pines. She followed U.S. Route 1 all the way to her home in Cary, near Raleigh.
The stress of the questioning, the hour-long drive, and the fact that she had just returned from twelve months of combat in Afghanistan came together to create an adrenaline dump. She was exhausted and, most of all, worried about her family.
Parking in her driveway, she noticed a strange car on the street in front of her house. Still wearing her uniform, she slung her rucksack over her shoulder, checked behind her to make sure no one had caught up with her yet, and kept her pistol in her right hand.
The front door of their brick-facade colonial home in suburban Cary was unlocked. She opened the door to the sound of a television and muted conversation in the den. She looked up the steps to her left and saw no activity. After walking through the foyer, she leaned against the wall that separated the den from the kitchen.
Piper.
She heard her four-year-old daughter's voice and nearly cried. Then she heard the voice of a young female, most likely that of a babysitter.
She holstered the pistol and turned into the room.
Both Piper and the young woman were startled and screamed. At first, neither recognized her, but then the babysitter, Dawn Jackson, a high school student who lived five blocks away in the neighborhood, said, “Oh my God. Mrs. Cassidy. You're home a week early!”
Maeve kept her eyes trained on Piper, who didn't seem to recognize her. She had deployed when Piper was barely three.
“Piper? Come to Mommy?”
Piper looked at Dawn, who nodded. “This is your mother, Piper.”
“You, my mother,” Piper said, pointing at Dawn.
Dawn blushed. “No. I just take care of you. This is your real mommy.”
Maeve's combat mind kicked into gear. She had no time for this. Her family was in danger, which could arrive with a menacing knock on the door at any moment.
Maeve knelt in front of Piper, staring into her child's hazel eyes. After a brief moment, Piper's face lit up and she started slapping her hands on her mother's shoulders in glee.
“Mommy's home! Daddy's been talking about Mommy coming home.”
“That's right. Mommy's home, honey.” She hugged her child, wiping tears from her eyes. After a few minutes, she turned to Dawn and said, “I need you to take Piper to your house, if that's okay. I will pay you double.”
Dawn shrugged. “Sure, Mrs. Cassidy, but that's not necessary.”
Maeve handed one hundred dollars to Dawn and asked, “Where's my husband?”
“He went to a party on Ridge Road in Raleigh. Some client party. Something to do with a natural gas pipeline,” Dawn said.
Alarm bells rang in Maeve's head. Was she too late? Had they also gotten to her husband?
“Please just do this, and either Pete or I will come get Piper. Go. Now.”
Dawn scurried to pick up the playthings, and Maeve said, “No time. Just please go.”
“You're scaring me, Mrs. Cassidy.”
“It's okay. Just go to your house.”
Quickly, Dawn was out of the door with Piper, who was now shouting, “Mommy! I want my mommy!”
Maeve took her equipment upstairs and removed a half-used bottle of henna extract from her rucksack and placed it on Piper's bureau. She slid a picture out of her combat helmet and drew a pyramid on the white photo paper backing, then inscribed a code beneath the drawing. She then picked up a picture frame from Piper's bureau. In it was a different photo of her and Piper—one directly before her deployment—where she was dressed in the digitized army battle uniform and Piper was wearing a red, white, and blue jeans and T-shirt outfit. She slid the picture from her helmet into a small frame, making sure it was visible between the outward facing picture of her and Piper and the glass cover of the frame. Maeve replaced the frame stand, and stood the picture up on the bureau next to the henna. It was the only clue she could leave.
She dumped her rucksack in her room and then sped out the door toward Ridge Road.
Maeve drove quickly through a couple of neighborhoods until she saw her husband's car: a practical and safe light blue Chevrolet Malibu with a Graco child seat in the back. She recognized the Cary Running Club decal on the window and parked in the street, behind his car. After walking past a dozen or so other cars, all more upscale than their Malibu, she approached the home, rang the doorbell, then knocked. A young, dark-haired female clad in a light blue UNC T-shirt answered by simply pulling open the door and leaving it that way. To Maeve, it didn't appear the woman was wearing anything from the waist down.
“Is Pete Cassidy here?” she asked.
The young lady shrugged her shoulders, said in an accented voice, “Perhaps that way,” and nodded her head toward the hallway. In addition to the Eastern European lilt, something about the appearance of the woman made her seem foreign. She had a broad face and an angular nose and was strikingly beautiful.
Something Balkan
, Maeve guessed. The T-shirt and the woman's appearance didn't match. She was young, but not a student, she thought.
The presence of the female only heightened her sense of alarm.
Maeve stepped into the massive two-story home with a hardwood foyer and looked in the grand sunken family room. There were several young women there, either naked or partially clothed. They all had that same European look, Maeve thought. She kept walking until she found herself in the upstairs master bedroom, watching her naked husband have sex with another woman.
Quickly, the woman pulled off of Maeve's husband, reached into the top drawer of the nightstand, rolled off the bed to the far end of the bedroom, and aimed a pistol at Maeve. Pete, her husband, joined the woman on the far side of the bedroom. Their positions had awkwardly reversed. Maeve's momentum and eagerness had carried her into the bedroom, past the bed, and toward the far wall, level with the large master bathroom mirror to her right. The woman's combat roll had positioned her closer to the door. Pete just seemed confused.
So now, on her first full night back in America after twelve months of combat in Afghanistan, Captain Maeve Cassidy found herself in an unfamiliar bedroom, with her troubled marriage bared and as naked as her surprised cheating husband, who looked back at her.
She stood with her back to the wall, keeping the door to the bedroom in her direct line of sight. The room smelled of sex. Oils. Creams. Lotions. Body fluids. A candle flame made shadows dance slowly around the room, as if otherworldly apparitions were having their own strobe-lit orgy.
To her right was the master bathroom. In its large mirror, running at least six feet across both washbasins, she could see the profile of her husband and his companion standing in front of her. Her own reflection was watching her, too. Her loose-fitting Army combat uniform hid her muscular, lithe frame. Her chestnut hair was too long by Army standards and fell around her shoulders, making the uniform appear less official. As if she were an impostor. After her experience in Afghanistan, that was exactly how she felt. Maeve was a faint reflection of the person who had stepped onto the Afghan desert floor twelve months ago.
Her uniform also hid her holstered pistol. She could still smell the smoky residue of the shot she had fired into the guard shack two hours earlier. Her mind registered that she had a round chambered and a nearly full magazine of hollow points in the well.
In her reflection she caught the blackness under her eyes, chiseled there by a year of sleepless nights and impossible missions. Her anxiety was deepened by the burden of the secrets she carried and had to protect at all costs. A year of eating combat rations had hollowed her face, making the planes of her cheekbones more prominent and, oddly, her entire countenance more beautiful. But the stress of her mission and the threats she still endured weighed on her like a heavy rucksack full of equipment she didn't need.
To Maeve's left was a nice poster bed, and beyond that a reading alcove with a bay window. Decorative pillows were piled high on the floor, like rubble. Maeve guessed that at some point before she saw an unfamiliar woman riding her husband on the bed beside her, those pillows had been neatly aligned on the bed. A streetlamp outside cast an eerie glow into the bedroom, competing with the candle's mystic visual effect.
Music wafted down the hall through the open door to the master bedroom. To her, the tune sounded like the Eagles, maybe “Hotel California,” but that song was well before her era.
“How did you find me?” her husband asked. He was standing next to an armoire with family photos in small frames scattered across the top.
Not their family
, Maeve thought. The photos did include, however, the naked woman, whose steady aim somewhat impressed Maeve. Maeve knew the pistol was a small Taurus that chambered five .357 hollow-point rounds. She could tell it was the 605 model by the dull blue finish and compact size.
“All I had to do was look beneath her.” Maeve shrugged, pointing at the woman next to her husband. She paused, figuring she was the one who lacked a full understanding of the situation, not her husband and his friend. So she answered the question as she knew it was intended. “Babysitter told me,” Maeve said.
“It's not what you think,” Pete Cassidy whispered, his voice a tight hiss, like steam escaping.
“Of course not. It never is. But what I think is irrelevant. Your lady friend here wants to shoot me, and that would not be good for either of us, especially Piper. I need to tell you some things that happened . . . overseas.” Maeve was attempting to be cryptic. She wasn't sure if any of these people knew anything about the threat she had brought home like a nefarious virus that could infect her and her family.
“What are you talking about?” Pete, in what Maeve registered as a submissive move, turned his head toward the woman and said, “And she will not shoot you. Put down the gun. Please.”
“Shut up, Pete. She is right. I
am
going to shoot her. And I will kill
you
if you say another word,” said the woman with the pistol.
Maeve had endured roadside bombs in Afghanistan. She had been in firefights with insurgents high on khat or opium. Oddly enough, she had killed her fair share of enemy combatants. The war had had no front lines. Or, put another way, Maeve thought, the entire place had been the front line. As a geologist, she had been there only to study shale drilling as part of a top secret United States energy program. She had arrived when most of the troops were either gone or were leaving. But it hadn't taken long to see that America had found significant new interests beneath the earth's dusty shell along the Pakistan border—and those interests had put her face-to-face with Taliban and Al Qaeda zealots.

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