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Red North!

Red North!

 

By

 

Mark Lemke

 

Dedication

 

The main character in the book is named after Nicholas Connor, born in the eye of a great typhoon as it passed over Naha, Okinawa.  May he grow up to be as strong and proud as his daddy!

PROLOGUE

 

 

Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)

 

US Army Special Forces

 

Area of Operations: Classified

 

Date: Classified

 

I

 

As I struggled to open my eyes, I felt my head pounding.  I slowly came to realize that I was laying face down, choking on dust, and not able to hear very well.  It was difficult to focus on where I was and what I was doing.  Something inside of me said, [‘Get up!  Keep moving!’ _] Without knowing exactly why, that’s what I did.  I pushed myself up to a kneeling position, found that that worked, and then to a wobbly standing position, after which I took off running as best I could—slowly at first, limping as if working out the kinks—then picking up speed as my limbs and joints loosened.  I knew I wasn’t running to get away from somebody, but rather that I was running toward something, the purpose of which was on the fringe of my consciousness.  Even though my recollection of why was vague, I knew I couldn’t stop to figure out what that was.  I ran on, sure—hoping—that the reason would reveal itself before I got [‘there’_].  I was vaguely aware of pain in my back and legs, finding it odd that I considered that irrelevant.  I just needed to keep moving.

As I ran through streets and by buildings, I remembered that I was in a town—somewhere in a third-world country by the looks of it.  The ‘buildings’ were mostly one story and made of brick and mud.  Roads were dirt or stone.  While the town was not modern by any measure, it appeared to be functional and, to a point, clean.  People were almost non-existent, which I realized gave me one less thing to worry about, as if people were a threat to me.  Up ahead, there was a building that looked like it might provide some cover.  Cover from what, I didn’t know, but I sensed it was what I needed.  Running toward the building, I saw that it had an alcove with a recessed door.  Good.  Quickly stepping into the shadows provided by the niche, I instinctively reached down and drew out my Yarborough, a knife with a 7-inch blade of CPM S30V stainless steel.  Why would I know those details?  I didn’t know how I knew, but I knew; and I remembered that a Medal of Honor recipient gave it to me in some kind of ceremony.  I held it in my left hand, so I assumed I was left-handed. 

I slowed my breathing as if that’s what I’d been trained to do, and the world around me came slowly into focus.  There was a throbbing in my head, like I had cotton in my ears, so I had to rely on other senses to figure out where I was and what I wanted to do next.  I carefully leaned forward to look around the corner of the building and then back toward the direction I’d come.  I saw three men lying dead on the road.  More importantly, I saw two more shouting, in what I assumed was some Chinese dialect, pointing in my direction and running toward me, with automatic weapons at the ready.  My mind started processing information.  I didn’t even try to figure it out.  It was almost instinctive, which was good, because I still didn’t know where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. As the two men who I’d identified somehow as ‘threats’ neared me, I exhaled and sprang out from the recess to attack them. This was probably the last thing they’d expected, because they slowed down and hesitated.  For reasons I couldn’t explain, I did not. 

With surprising speed, considering the pain I felt in my back and legs, I rushed toward the one closest to me.  I switched my hold on the knife so the handle was forward and the blade was laid back, next to my forearm.  When I got to the first guy, I swung my arm forward, as if throwing a punch while running past him.  With a wide sweeping motion, the Yarborough sliced across his throat, causing a huge gash that immediately spurted dark red blood.  To push the knife into his chest cavity in an attempt to find a vital organ would have required me to have to pull it out again, and that would have taken time that I didn’t have.  As the knife cut through his windpipe and severed his carotid artery, he dropped to his knees and grabbed his throat, losing his grip on his rifle.  I bent over, dropped my knife, and picked up the dying man’s weapon, laying down a withering field of fire in the direction of the other man.  He died with his mouth and eyes wide open, but died nonetheless.  I turned back to the man kneeling in the dirt, bleeding out at the neck, and put one round in his head. He fell to the ground and didn’t move again.

I reached down, picked up my knife, wiped the blood off on my pant leg, and sheathed it.  I stood still and looked for the next threat.  Sensing none, I stood still for a moment, disconnected memory fragments just beyond my reach.  I looked down at the weapon I was holding, knowing in an instant that it was an AK-47; a selective-fire, gas-operated assault rifle capable of firing rounds of 7.62×39mm with a muzzle velocity of 2,400 ft/sec, first developed in the Soviet Union by a guy called Mikhail Kalashnikov.  It had a distinctive sound when fired and was a reputable weapon under a variety of adverse conditions.  I seemed to know everything about the rifle, but at the moment only cared that it was a weapon and that I was holding it and they weren’t.

I felt a surge of adrenaline because I had a weapon other than my knife, gratified that I was standing up, and that there was no one in my direct field of vision trying to kill me. Something told me to keep moving.  Time was of the essence. The fog in my brain was lifting and a sense of purpose was starting to come back to me.  My team was in trouble, but where were they now?  As I took off running again, the blood pumping to my brain helped revive me.  Memories were surfacing like flashbacks, dots were connecting, and reason replaced instinct.  We’d been tracking the whereabouts of a particularly well-armed, well-connected terrorist cell.  Without thinking about it, I recalled that the guys we’d been looking for had infiltrated a business being run overseas—something about trying to destabilize an entire industry.  The breadth of our involvement was unclear, but I remembered why I was there.  We started in Hong Kong and followed the trail out here—to wherever ‘here’ was.

Holding the Yarborough helped me remember I was part of the US Army’s elite Green Berets. The media called us the masters at the dark arts of counter-terrorism.  We just shook our heads when we heard that kind of bullshit.  There were no ‘dark arts’ that we knew about.  We were just guys that hit harder than the next guy, had good intel, and had the courage to finish whatever we started.

Memories started exploding in my mind, causing my heart to race as I remembered hearing ‘Danger close!  Danger close!’ in my earpiece. I looked off to the right and recognized the building where I’d sent Billy to maintain overlook. Why didn’t I see him or hear him now?  Several large, well-armed men had come crashing through two doors from the building left of where I’d been standing and descended on us. I heard the distinctive sound of Billy’s rifle as he cracked off five quick rounds.  I saw three of the men drop before they got to us, but there were just too many of them.  Protocol said Billy had to break off for fear of hitting one of us.

Eric leapt over me and grappled with one of the men who was preparing to shoot me.  He wrapped one arm around the guy’s head and positioned his other hand on the man’s jaw.  With a sharp, quick twisting motion, he broke the man’s neck, severing his spinal cord and terminating his life functions.  The guy went limp and fell to the ground in a heap when Eric let go of him.

It hadn’t been enough though.  They’d started swarming all over us. One of them clubbed Eric over the head with his rifle and I saw Eric go limp. Two men grabbed him and started to run out of the building, dragging Eric behind them. I struggled with three guys working to restrain me.  They were big but undisciplined fighters.  It took me a while, but I’d somehow gotten the better of them.  I stood and looked at the chaos around me.  Most of my team seemed intact, but Eric was nowhere in sight.  The last time I saw him, he was being hauled out of the building we were in, toward the center of that shit-hole of a town.

I turned to Tim and told him to get on the radio and get an evac helicopter to the rendezvous point.  I was going to find Eric.  I gave Tim ten minutes.  If I wasn’t back by then, he had orders to get the hell out of there.  He had the information we’d collected and it was imperative that we got it back to HQ, regardless of the cost.  I could tell by looking at Tim that he didn’t like that one bit but knew better than to argue.  He knew I was right, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.  He paused for a moment and looked at me.  Then he turned, signaled the others, and disappeared out the back of the building.

I took off running. From our previous intelligence on this group and our workup on this operation, I knew the building they would probably take Eric to.  It was heavily fortified and hard to sneak up on. It was a good position to defend and the most likely spot they’d head. But the element of surprise was on my side.  They weren’t expecting me to crash their fucking headquarters.  I knew I couldn’t waste time waiting until they could regroup or get fortified. I didn’t get very far, though, when I saw someone lob a grenade in my direction. I ran perpendicular to it as fast as I could before it exploded, but it caught me nonetheless.  I was far enough away when it exploded that it wasn’t lethal, but it peppered my back and legs with shrapnel.  The blast knocked me down and the concussion ruptured blood vessels all over my body.

That was the last thing I remembered until I woke up face down in the dirt.

II

 

My head was mostly clear now, but hurt like a sonofabitch. I knew all I needed to know.  I knew why I was running and I knew where I was going. I also knew I’d weaken soon. I was bleeding, and that’s never good.  So I just kept moving, and moving quickly.

As I ran, I checked the magazine to see how many rounds I still had.  Not enough.  I would have to make each shot count.

No time!  No time!

I picked up the pace and started to sprint.  Eric was in trouble and that was enough motivation for me. Standard operating procedure for these assholes would be to film Eric’s execution, likely through beheading, for propaganda purposes. That just wasn’t going to happen so long as I was alive.

The fortified building I was sure they were holed up in was just ahead.  Hopefully they hadn’t had time to stage lookouts—I’d find out in a minute.  I kept pressing ahead. They were probably just inside, hurrying to get their camera equipment set up.

Nobody was shooting at me—yet—which was a good sign they didn’t know I was there.  I took a bead on the front door and kicked it in while at a dead run.  It slammed open and everyone in the room looked at once in my direction, startled and angry.  Eric was on his knees in the middle of the room—alive—with one big guy holding onto him. He was bleeding profusely and his head was down with his chin resting on his chest.

The surprise at my sudden entrance lasted just long enough for me to put two into the head of the guy to my left. The guy to my right went down with two center mass shots.  That was it.  I was out of bullets. I dropped the AK-47, took my knife out and lunged at the guy closest to me. He stopped being a threat when he could no longer breathe through his throat.

In the confusion of the moment, Eric summoned his remaining strength, reached up to the guy holding him, caught him around the neck, pulled him over his shoulders, and slammed him to the ground. The man was large by anyone’s standards, and no doubt a capable fighter, but one on one nobody could best my guys.  Within minutes, Eric and I were the only ones still breathing. As I looked down, I saw I was standing in a pool of blood, some of it probably my own, and my world and everything in it became vague.

As I woke up, I struggled to open my eyes, which wanted to close again immediately.  My lips were parched; and as my mind gained consciousness, the pain returned.  Only this time it was more like a dull throb and not the stabbing sensation and searing heat I’d felt earlier.  I wasn’t laying in the dirt, either.  This time I was on a cot of some kind and mostly just felt groggy. I’d been told morphine does that to you.  Trying to get my bearings, I opened my eyes and kept them open this time to look around.  I was in what looked like a tent or some kind of field hospital and everyone around me was Caucasian, allowing me to relax.  Tim was standing there, looking at me.

“Hey, Nick.  You’re finally awake.  I thought you were gonna milk this and stay sleep all day.  How you feeling?” he said with a smile on his face.

“I think I stubbed my toe,” I replied.  “How bad is it?”

I knew two things. Tim was as fine a Special Forces medic as there was.  And he wouldn’t lie to me.

“You’ll live,” he said. “But we need to get you to a real hospital.”

Still groggy and not knowing how I got there, I had to ask. “What about Eric?”

“You really don’t remember?” asked Tim, as he adjusted the IV drip in my arm.  “He’s a little worse for wear but you got him out.  He’s on a helo heading for a hospital.  He’ll be fine.”

I relaxed a bit, but only a bit.  “And the others?”

Tim stopped fiddling with the IV and looked me in the eyes. “We took some casualties.  We lost Billy and Dave.  But the others are okay.”

I sank back in my bed.  I felt defeated.  Billy and Dave gone.  My eyes stung and my breath got shallow.  I’d known both of them well.  It was cliché to say I spent time with them, drinking beer at their homes and having dinner with their wives and families.

Tim saw my despair.  “Hey, are you kidding me?” he said. “You got the rest of us out of that shithole in one piece. None of us would be alive if it weren’t for you. You got bullet holes all over your damn body. Your back is full of shrapnel, and your legs look like Swiss cheese.  And that was before you got Eric out of there.”

He paused for a moment, looking closely at my face, no doubt trying to tell if I was still dazed or trying to absorb all this information.

“You left a path of destruction from one end of that town to the other.  There were dead guys all over the place.  And many of them appeared to have died from knife wounds.  We were waiting at the evac point getting ready to ex-fill out of there when you came limping over the hill, with your right arm under Eric’s shoulders and your Yarborough in your left hand, dripping blood.”

Tim then lowered his voice to a whisper.  “That was the most awe-inspiring display of reckless bravery I’ve ever seen, man . . . or will ever see.”

I wasn’t sure but it looked like Tim’s eyes were tearing up as I put my hand on his arm just before dropping into to a drug-induced unconscious state.

 

CHAPTER 1

 

TWO YEARS LATER

  • * * *

DECEMBER

OFF THE COAST OF THE HEADLANDS NUCLEAR POWER PLANT

 

Jansen and Stone bobbed up and down in their small boat just offshore from The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant, making every effort to look like they were fishing instead of making plans to seize control of the plant.  With chiseled features, a three-day growth of beard, and clothes that smelled of fish guts and seaweed, they could easily have passed as two drifters making their way up and down the Pacific coast, booking passage as temporary help on seagoing trawlers, instead of the mercenaries they were.  Even though they were the ones there to observe and study the plant from the ocean side, they were sure the paramilitary security force employed by The Headlands was also observing them.  But that was of no concern to them today.  For as much as the security force worried about unwanted visitors from this direction, Jansen and Stone knew the security force personnel were confident that the plant was unassailable from the ocean.  Jansen and Stone wanted to reassure themselves of the same thing.  They wanted no surprises once they were inside.

Like a fortress on the edge of the continent, The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant rose up out of the gray bedrock and sat, unmoving and grim in the gathering fog of late December. There was no lighthouse or foghorn to warn seamen of the location of the plant. The huge facility was impossible to hide but tried not to call attention to itself and was painted neutral colors in an attempt to blend in with its surroundings. Numbing cold surf pounded relentlessly—much as it had for hundreds of thousands of years—at the base of the steep rocky cliffs on which the plant was built, leaving no purchase for groping hands or landing areas for errant boats. Great white sharks prowled this stretch of the northern California coastline, making it a graveyard for seals and otters as they played in the giant kelp beds that swayed hypnotically to and fro with the ocean surge.

Seemingly impenetrable to the weather, and to Jansen and Stone who were watching it from a safe distance off shore, it was clear to them that the commercial nuclear power facility couldn’t be breached from the ocean. They’d be safe enough, once inside. They’d only have to worry about the FBI’s take-back strategies from the road or from the hills.  This narrowed down the areas they would have to defend. They knew the plant was designed to resist and repel people attacking from the outside.  But the security force generally didn’t look inward. So once inside, Jansen and Stone knew that they’d have the upper hand and it’d be hard to get them out. At least not before they were ready to leave.

Convinced they’d seen everything they needed to see, they pulled in their fishing lines, started the 75-horsepower Evinrude, and headed back to the marina where they’d rented the boat.  Careful planning was an essential ingredient to pulling this off.  It was time now to get key assets in place—and that took advance work. They were careful men, if nothing else.

On their way back to the marina and when they were out of sight of the plant’s watchful eyes, Jansen got out a satellite phone and dialed the secure number for Waxman Industries in Atlanta, Georgia.

“Yes?” was the only greeting.

“This is Jansen.  We’re ready to go.  You can set things in motion.”

The person at Waxman Industries said, “You understand once we start this, you’re committed to finishing it. We will not tolerate incompetence or failure.”

“If by that you mean I won’t be paid unless we’re successful, I understand that.”  Jansen then lowered his voice to make sure his next point was clearly understood.  “But let me tell you something.  If you don’t live up to your end of the agreement, I’ll come and find you.  If you don’t pay, I’ll kill you, your family, and everyone you know!”

The person at Waxman Industries paused for a moment and then said in an equally low, monotone voice, “Based on your reputation in the military, I would expect nothing less.  That does have something to do with why you were discharged, doesn’t it?”

Jansen could hear the hint of sarcasm on the other end of the phone.  “My time in the service is of no importance to you.  All you need to know is that the Rangers trained me to find and kill the enemy, and by God, you’ll become my enemy if you don’t live up to your end of this deal.”

Another pause. “Good.  Then we understand one another.” With that, the man at Waxman Industries terminated the call.

Jansen wasn’t sure if he detected a hint of humor from the other man, but there was certainly no fear in his voice. He didn’t know the person at the other end of the phone, but it was always important to establish your position in a situation like this.  He’d made his intentions clear; and regardless of his threat, he felt sure he’d gotten his point across.  He put the phone back in his pocket and turned up the collar on his jacket to ward off the December chill.

Stone looked at Jansen, waiting for him to tell him about the phone call, but when that information wasn’t forthcoming, he asked, “Well?”

Jansen looked over at Stone in a condescending way, “We’re good to go. Let’s get back to town and we can talk about the next steps.” He saw no need to explain his plans completely to Stone.  More accurately, he didn’t want Stone to know everything. Jansen was the one Waxman Industries hired to coordinate this plan, and he didn’t want or need others to know too much about the specifics of the plan. Leaks could hurt them, and he’d done his best to control them up until now.  He’d give Stone what he needed to know, when he needed to know it.

Stone noticed the stare and the lack of information provided. He didn’t like Jansen and certainly didn’t like taking orders from him.  Unlike Stone, Jansen was an outsider to the Waxman Industries ‘security group.’ Stone had been with that group for years now and had done a number of jobs for them. More of a thug than someone trained in operations of this nature, Stone, and a number of others who worked for Waxman, certainly believed themselves more than capable of doing this job. But for some reason passing Stone’s understanding, Waxman Industries had brought in Jansen to lead this particular effort. Stone’s ego was often easily bruised, and it frequently showed in his attitude, but the pay for this job was going to be very, very good and he couldn’t overlook that.  So he swallowed his pride and acquiesced to work under this new guy Jansen . . . at least for a while.

Over the next thirty minutes, and without speaking to one other, Stone guided the boat over the choppy winter seas back to the marina.

As they pulled up to the dock, he couldn’t stand it anymore. “So, I’ll ask again . . . what’s next?” he demanded with impatience and no small hint of frustration in his tone.

Jansen didn’t rise to the bait.  “Now, we get our team inside.”

Stone didn’t like the inference that suddenly he and his men were now part of Jansen’s ‘team’.   “And how exactly are we going to do that?” he said.  Stone had experience and believed he should be trusted with key elements of the plan. So when Jansen didn’t tell him things, it pissed him off.

Jansen paused for a moment, debating how much he should tell him.  He knew Stone didn’t like him, but he couldn’t care less.  He knew how to crack the security of this power plant and apparently Stone didn’t. That was precisely why Waxman Industries hired him.  Stone was a thug, a hired hand, a blunt instrument and did not have the temperament or the talent for a job of this complexity.

Jansen knew that with a refueling and maintenance outage coming in the spring when demand for The Headland’s electricity was low, deliveries were commonplace weeks and even months in advance of the shutdown and refueling of one of the two large pressurized water reactors. Hundreds of jobs, all vital to the success of the outage, all needed to be done, many of them by temporary workers. So he’d arranged for a few of his men to apply for temp jobs during the outage. The plant was always looking for craftsmen, welders, pipefitters, electricians and construction workers who were able to work for just a month or two—transient workers who went from one nuclear plant to another for good money, or ‘road whores’ as they are sometime called. Most of the large nuclear power plant organizations had become more efficient in refueling the giant reactors and performing maintenance that could only be done with the plant off line.  As a result, outage work scope was reduced and the duration of the shutdowns became shorter and shorter.

The down side of the short maintenance windows meant that the temporary workers couldn’t make as much money as they once could.  The good ones often looked for permanent jobs in hopes of getting off the road and settling down.  That didn’t leave a lot of traveling craftsmen left to choose from. So the utility was generally grateful for any and all who showed up and applied for work.

Many of the applicants for work showed signs of aging, with graying hair (or no hair) and large round stomachs.  They wore faded blue jeans and steel-toed boots and looked like they were one prime rib dinner away from a heart attack. Others were young guys looking at their first job and trying to get a foothold in the industry or gain some experience to put on their résumé. Young or old, a few of them would be rejected when they didn’t pass the mandatory pre-employment drug screening, which included peeing in a bottle and a blood test. Some even came to the site intoxicated and couldn’t pass the Breathalyzer test.

However, those who met the minimum intelligence tests, could produce a valid driver’s license, pass a background test that said they didn’t have an arrest record, and pass the drug screening would be hired to work in the Unit 1 outage scheduled for late February.

 Jansen arranged for six handpicked Waxman Industries men to get in that line.  Six guys who looked to be in their late twenties or early thirties, appeared to be physically fit to anyone who happened to notice, and wore clothes that were not nearly as worn as many others in line. They would each carry a lunch pail or an Igloo cooler with union logos and Chiquita banana stickers all over them, just like everyone else, which spoke to a life on the road. A couple of them would wear ball caps with a baseball or football franchise logo on the front. Except for their age, broad shoulders, and upright posture, they would do their best to blend in.  Each would have a valid driver’s license and would have no problem passing mandatory drug or alcohol testing.  Jansen would make sure of that.  When asked what temporary agency they worked for, each would put down ‘Waxman Industries’. It would take a couple of days and a lot of standing around, but each of the six would eventually be hired, given a car pass to get on site and a badge that identified them as temporary plant employees—a badge that allowed them unescorted access to the ‘protected’ area of the nuclear power plant.

Jansen already had this all planned.  He needed a couple more pieces to fall into place and he’d be ready to go. Getting his men inside was an integral part of his plan. But he also needed some specialized ‘equipment’. Based on what he’d just seen from the ocean side of the plant, he felt ready to set the next part of his plan in motion.

As Stone sullenly tied a rope around a cleat on the dock, still waiting for some kind of explanation, Jansen looked at him and simply said, “It’s time for the next step. Let’s go.”

On a Monday, just before Christmas, a delivery truck pulled up to the warehouse of The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant. With a refueling outage coming in the spring, it was normal to begin receiving deliveries well in advance of refueling one of the two large pressurized water reactors. With hundreds of jobs, both big and small, and thousands of parts to support those jobs, it was vital to the success of the outage to have parts received, inspected, certified, and stored in their proper place in the warehouse so they could be quickly retrieved when needed. Trucks, both big and small, were lined up to deliver parts and consumables to the giant warehouse located just behind the power plant, as they had been doing for weeks now. So on this Monday morning, one more truck in the queue was completely normal and raised no eyebrows at all.

The warehouse fork lift operator came over to the delivery truck, picked up four large crates out of the back, one at a time, and set them down in the line of boxes and crates that had to be x-rayed prior to being brought inside the protected area of the plant.  Nothing was allowed into the plant without being screened, x-rayed, or searched first. Firearms, explosives, and alcohol were all forbidden, and to bring these things on site would result in a felony arrest of the person trying to bring the items in.  The Headlands took security seriously, as did all sixty-five nuclear power plants in the United States.  The ramifications of a nuclear incident, whether by accident or design, were simply too great to chance.

The bill of lading on each of the four crates said ‘Waxman Industries’ and listed ‘machine parts’ as the contents. A second warehouseman compared the invoice number on the crates to the master list he was carrying to ensure that the parts were scheduled to be delivered. After he’d verified the delivery was expected, he gave the forklift operator the go-ahead to put them into the x-ray machine.

Today, the security officer who staffed the x-ray machine was very deliberate about how he did his job.  He was a filling in for the regularly scheduled officer who, at the last minute, ‘requested’ some extra time off prior to Christmas.  Doing x-rays of machine parts all day long was a tedious job.  It wasn’t one of the glamorous jobs in the security department, but it paid well and it beat the alternatives. As the security officer looked at the crates, he noticed the name on them. When he saw ‘Waxman Industries’, he immediately tensed up and his heart began to race. He’d been told to look for these crates and to make sure that no one else looked at the x-rays. He was told if he did this, and kept his mouth shut about it, he’d be fast tracked for an armed responder position.  That meant more pay and more prestige.  He was told that these crates contained some parts that some engineer wanted that were not exactly nuclear grade, but they were supposed to be saving the company a whole lot of money.  While not strictly on the up and up, he was told the parts were not being used on any critical plant equipment so it didn’t really matter that much.  He was new to the organization and assumed this was how things worked.  As the crates came through, the huge x-ray machine scanned the contents and printed out a picture of each box.  The pictures would be put in the file for subsequent audits, should it ever be necessary to prove that the contents had been evaluated.  The security officer took the pictures and when no one was looking, folded them up and put them in his pocket.  He signed off on the ledger saying the boxes had been scanned and their intended storage location identified.  Satisfied, and immensely relieved that he was able to do that without being found out, he affixed the proper authorization tag to the crates so the warehouseman would know they’d been cleared and could be brought in and stored.

A second forklift operator, this one inside the protected side of the warehouse, drove over and picked up the crates and took them to their ground floor location, at the end of a row, near an exit door.

CHAPTER 2

 

FEBRUARY

 

  • * * *

 

SUNDAY NIGHT

 

THE HEADLANDS NUCLEAR POWER PLANT OUTFALL

 

The offshore breeze died away and soon there was no air movement at all, which lent an uneasy feel to the mobile patrol officer’s surroundings.  Between the cold, grey, suffocating February fog that hung low across the water, and the obscure sky, heavy with menacing clouds, obliterating any reflected light from above, his surroundings were as dark and foreboding as his malevolent intentions.

Bobby moved carefully over the slippery rocks, wet from the thickening fog, and up to a gate in the chain link fence, corroded over time from salt air, which had been seldom used since construction days.  He fumbled for the key in his pocket and noticed his hands were shaking, whether from the cold or nerves, he didn’t know.  He squeezed the key a bit tighter, perhaps so as not to drop it when he took it out of his pocket.  With his free hand, he took hold of the cold, corroded lock, put the key in, and turned it, half expecting it not to work.  On some level, he hoped it wouldn’t, for then he wouldn’t have had to go through with this.  Unfortunately the key turned and the lock sprang open with a barely perceptible click.  Perhaps this would be his undoing on the day he had to atone for his sins. 

With the gate now open, he drove his pickup truck slowly around a large outcropping of rocks covered with years of sea gull droppings, which gave the whole area a strong, ammonia-like smell. There was nothing on the other side of the gate but a small rock-strewn bluff overlooking the plant outfall, where the warm discharge water from the plant emptied out into the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean. 

The security cameras were not directed to look in this area, because it was inaccessible from the ocean some thirty feet below and presented no real security threat to the plant. Despite the lack of cameras Bobby sensed that he was being watched.  He froze in place and felt his heart thumping in his chest.  It was as if he could feel the darkness, full of the dank, rotting smell of ocean decay, envelope him in its cold, lifeless grip. 

Then he heard it.  Actually, it wasn’t so much what he heard, but what he felt.  The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant gave off a low but detectable hum that seemed to permeate everything.  It was as if the ground itself was vibrating.  He didn’t know why, but he turned and looked up at the plant a couple hundred yards away, thinking it almost seemed alive to him—something he really hadn’t noticed before.  A feeling of foreboding passed over him that he couldn’t explain but which seemed to signal that he’d crossed over to a world that was trying to swallow him whole.  If he were smart, he would’ve stopped what he was doing, turned around, and headed for the light and salvation.  It’s not that he wasn’t smart.  He’d gotten good grades in school.  He was just young, impressionable, and wanted the money he’d been offered to do this unspeakable thing, and the new truck and clothes and big screen TV it could buy.  He shook his head from side to side to clear it, not really wanting to think too much about it, but the sound now was malignant and wouldn’t quiet in his head.

Quickly and quietly, he let down the tailgate of the truck, grabbed the large, black plastic bag with his ‘cargo’ in it and pulled it toward him.  The bed of the truck was wet from the fog and his cargo slipped out and almost fell on top of him as it landed with a thud on the ground at his feet.

He grabbed the bag by the corners and muscled it over to the edge of the cliff.  As he reached down and undid one end of the bag, he grimaced at the sight of the body of what used to be a pretty, young woman.  He just wanted this to be over now, and he was no longer sure this was worth the money he was getting.  It sounded a lot better to him when his part in this was being explained and there wasn’t a dead body in front of him.

With trepidation he reached in, eased her arms up over her head, and pulled her out of the bag by the wrists.  He’d forgotten to put on the gloves he’d brought with him and almost jumped when he felt her cold, claylike skin.  The sight of her lying there, lifeless, made him want to gag, but he had to get her out of the bag so that when she went into the water the crabs and fish could more easily feed on her and render her unrecognizable.  Bacteria from decay would cause gas to build up in her body cavity, causing her to bloat and disfigure, but the sea life would do a better, and faster, job . . . at least, that’s what he’d been told.

She wasn’t heavy, but fear and guilt caused his breathing to labor as he dragged her over to the edge of the rocks.  As she lay there in front of him, blouse slightly askew, her gray, naked waist exposed and her bra showing, he remembered having seen her around the plant from time to time.  She was—had been—an attractive woman, and he was a single guy, though he didn’t have a girlfriend at the moment. He knew she worked in the Health Physics Department and is¾was¾married to someone who worked there, but that didn’t stop him from having his little fantasies.  Before tonight, when he went over this job in his mind, he’d contemplated touching her, but the clammy feel of her skin left him queasy and he just wanted to get this over with before he threw up.  He found nothing attractive about her now.

Bending over, he reached his arms underneath her back and legs, dragged her the short distance to oblivion, and rolled her off the edge of the cliff.  For reasons he did not fully understand, he found himself holding his breath, as if doing so would create a barrier between him and the lifeless body he just pushed into the waiting abyss.

He watched as she dropped into the water with a small, almost noiseless splash thirty feet below, and then popped back to the surface and lingered there for a moment, face down in the water.  But then, in the warm, frothy water, Bobby watched with revulsion as she made a slow, macabre spiral, her body turning so that it lay face up, staring at him, her lifeless eyes wide open in frozen condemnation.  He dropped to his knees and retched uncontrollably for several minutes, unable to watch as she was swept out to sea.  Within a couple of hours, he knew she’d be well out in the ocean, where the tides and currents would carry her far from the rugged coastline, hoping nobody could ever trace this to him, yet fearing somehow, they would.

Sweating profusely, yet chilled to the bone, Bobby struggled to his feet, wiped his mouth off on his sleeve, gathered up the now empty black plastic bag, threw it back into the truck bed, and pushed the tailgate closed gently, careful not to bang it shut. He didn’t want to do anything to raise suspicion.  Not tonight.

Climbing back into the truck, he slowly made his way back to the other side of the gate, making sure he left it locked the way he’d found it.  With his grisly task complete, he turned the heater up full, not sure if he was hot or cold but thankful for the warmth anyway.

He drove to the parking lot at the top of the road near the plant main entrance, careful not to exceed the speed limit of 10 mph, to a trash dumpster partially hidden behind some temporary trailers, where he quickly disposed of the black plastic bag.  He thought he’d feel better once all evidence of what he’d done had been erased.  He couldn’t have been more wrong.

As he headed off on what remained of his security rounds, he heard the sea rise up and crash over the breakwater with a vicious pounding.  The news said there was a winter storm coming, which usually meant big waves, or at least big swells.  He hadn’t really noticed the waves on his way down to the outfall, but now the ocean sounded as if it were angry.

    Within a matter of minutes, Bobby pulled up to one of the many temporary trailers set up in the back of the parking lots as makeshift offices for contractors and temporary employees.  He knew they’d be unoccupied at that time of night.  Using his security keys, he opened one, went inside, found a phone, and dialed a four-digit plant number.

“It’s done,” he told the person on the other end, almost sobbing into the phone.

He felt completely drained of energy or enthusiasm, knowing what he’d done would haunt him the rest of his life. Listening to the ocean as it continued its relentless assault on the shoreline, he recognized it as a metaphor for the rest of his wretched life.

CHAPTER 3

 

TUESDAY NIGHT

  • * * * *

INSIDE THE HEADLEANDS SECURITY CENTER

 

Ted settled in for a long, slow night at The Headlands security center, known as the Central Alarm Station, or CAS.  The graveyard shift was like that—long and boring.  It was only about 7:30 p.m., which was too early to start eating his ‘lunch,’ and he didn’t feel like having a snack just yet, though he always had a Diet Coke somewhere nearby.  Ted was in his late forties, though he often felt older.  Shift work can do that to a guy.  Being in a union shop where he had seniority meant he was first in line to pick the job he wanted.  So he opted to work nights, and in CAS.

Working 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. had its advantages.  There were fewer management people around to get in his way, and the pace of the shift was generally slower.  But working nights wore him out, both physically and mentally, and he was sure it aged him prematurely.  He reasoned it was the price he paid for better pay and fewer hassles.

Most of the 1,395 plant personnel who worked at the plant had left for the day.  It was already dark outside, with a freshening wind coming in off the northern California coast, bringing with it bits of sea foam that landed on cars in the parking lots, on fences, and on security cameras.  A winter storm with a cold rain was on its way, kicking up waves and generally wreaking havoc on the video cameras stationed around the plant near the fence.  Because the cameras were outside in the weather, they were susceptible to the corrosive sea air.  Sea foam and mist generally covered the lenses, so they had to be washed frequently to keep them clear.

Sitting in the darkened security room, Ted scanned the bank of video monitors that showed whatever the various remote cameras were aimed at. It was tedious work to constantly scan the monitors, which was why he relied on his Diet Cokes to help keep him alert.

Something caught his eye on one of the monitors, from the camera pointed to the northwest quadrant of the plant, outside the turbine building.  It was movement of some sort just inside the fenced-off protected area—the kind of movement that looked unusual for a plant employee to be making, and in a location where no one should have been at that time of night.

As he focused on this one monitor and looked closer, he could see two people, moving together, and moving quickly, carrying things in their arms.  He took manual control of that camera and using the track-mounted joystick, zoomed in to get a better look.  He instinctively leaned forward as if this would allow him to see more clearly.  He couldn’t believe what he saw!  Intruders!

“Red North!  Red North!” Ted barked into the radio indicating a security breach on the north side of the plant.  He used the radio to get the word out to the various security officers stationed around the large industrial site, while knowing that the others in CAS would hear him at the same time.

“We have two perps inside the fence!” he said urgently.  “Looks like they’re carrying weapons, moving fast, heading toward the turbine building!  I repeat, Red North!”

Immediately on alert now, sitting straight and tall, Ted and his partner, John, started a fast but methodical scan of all monitors.  Hector, the security shift supervisor, jumped up from his desk.  Looking over Ted’s shoulder, he asked, “What’ve we got?”

“We’ve got at least two perps,” Ted replied, talking fast now as his adrenaline kicked in. “Looks like they’re carrying weapons, and knapsacks, heading for the plant.”

Knapsacks!  Hector knew that meant they were probably carrying explosives.  He was more worried about that than the weapons they were carrying.

Hector asked, “How the hell did they get inside the fence without our knowing?”

“Don’t know boss, but they did.”

Just then, the radio crackled with incoming reports from the security officers stationed around the plant.

“This is Delta 2.  I’m heading to intercept!”

“This is Delta 4.  I got ‘em!  I got ‘em!  I’ll be in position in a few seconds.”

Then John, who was looking at other monitors, spoke with the same sense of urgency in his voice, “We’ve got two more, east side of the yard by the transformers, moving fast toward the auxiliary building!”

“Pull up the video capture and replay it!” Hector immediately ordered. “I want to see what we’re dealing with.”

The plant perimeter had two ten-foot-high fences around it.  Each fence was lazy fence, not tight and tensioned, because loose fencing is much harder to climb.  It’s like climbing up rope instead of a ladder.  On top were several interlocking loops of razor wire, which would slice open hands, legs, arms, or anything that came in contact with it, hurt like hell, and made you think twice about continuing.

As forbidding as they were, those fences weren’t designed to keep intruders out indefinitely, as many people thought.  They were only there to slow down the bad guys until the internal security force could arrive and neutralize them.

The area in-between the two rows of fences was originally for specially trained attack dogs.  But local humanitarian groups complained about what they considered to be inhumane treatment of the animals.  The interveners were always looking for ways to shut down the plant, and they used the dogs as yet another way to create negative publicity for the station.  So the dogs were removed some time ago.

Hector cursed under his breath for not having the dogs now.  But even without the dogs, he didn’t know how the perps managed to penetrate the perimeter without his guys knowing first.  That was something he’d have to look into later.

Delta 4 called in with urgency in his voice. “We’ve got an explosion!  Repeat, explosion at door B-17!  Shots fired!  One intruder is down.  Looks like the other perp gained entry to the emergency diesel generator corridor!”

Hector knew where that door was.  Years of experience allowed security personnel to talk in code, which was much quicker for them.  He knew door B-17 opened into the Unit 1 turbine building on the ground floor near the emergency diesel generator rooms.

“Where’re the other two guys headed?” Hector commanded Ted and John. “Find me those other two guys!”

Hector then got out one of the worn binders containing the classified security procedures and started looking at the section labeled [_‘target sets.’ _] He needed to look at what combination of equipment and power supplies the intruders might be targeting, so he could get a better feel for where they might be headed.  If he knew that, he could get his guys there first.  That was the plan, anyway. 

He knew that the emergency diesel generators were key to most target set combinations required to help keep the nuclear core stable.  Power was everything. Without it, they couldn’t run pumps or have instruments, which provided indications of what was going on inside the massive reactor vessel.  He was familiar with the target sets involving these two areas of the plant; but by procedure, he needed to confirm it. Taking out diesel generators he understood.  He also knew he had a security officer heading there from inside the power plant, and his men already got one of the bad guys before he apparently blew the door.  The situation near the diesels appeared to be contained. He was more concerned about where the other two intruders were headed.  If he could figure that out, and do it quickly, he could deploy his limited resources accordingly.  Hector knew he had only minutes to get all this done.

John almost shouted, “I got ‘em, boss!  They’re heading up the back stairwell, toward Unit 1 containment!”

Hector relaxed.  He was confident that containment couldn’t be broken into. If it could, it’d be a nightmare scenario, because the nuclear core was inside containment.  Damage to that would be unthinkable.

“Good work, John!  Get Delta 7 and 8 to intercept them at the emergency airlock.”  Hector felt certain that he’d have them boxed in any minute now.

“Already on it, boss!” John said.  Then, “Wait one . . . more shots fired.  Shit!  I don’t believe it.  Look at this!”  John was staring at the monitor that covered the back area of the plant.  “Looks like Delta 7 is down.  Delta 8 is taking cover inside the fuel-handling building!”

Hector was no longer as confident about the odds of success as he had been just seconds ago.  “Get the Rover up there NOW!”  The Rover was a security officer that has no pre-designated place to be.  He was available to be dispatched to wherever he was needed most. 

Ted said, “I got Video Capture up, Boss.  Looks like the two guys heading toward containment are carrying large knapsacks.”

“Copy that,” Hector acknowledged.

More knapsacks!  Hector turned to the section in his procedure for protecting containment, quickly scanning the first page, then picked up a phone and dialed the number for the control room shift manager.  The phone was answered within three rings.

“Shift Manager Dave Street.”

“This is Security Watch Supervisor Gonzalez.  We have a security event in progress on the north side of Unit 1. Looks like they’re headed for the containment emergency airlock. We have officers down. My procedures say to recommend you take actions for ‘Imminent Security Threat’ and shut down Unit 1!”

“Understand, Imminent Threat, security event in progress, Unit 1.  You have casualties and are recommending we take Unit 1 off-line.”

“That’s correct.  Notify whomever you need to call, and I’ll get in touch with local law enforcement.  I’ll call back in a few minutes with more info.” 

With that, Hector hung up the phone, not waiting for a reply.  He knew the shift manager would want more information, but this was either going to be over in a couple of minutes, or they’d all have more serious issues to consider.

Just then, the secure door to CAS opened and Lynn, the watch commander for the shift, came in.  Even though she had overall charge of the security personnel for the shift, she knew better than to interfere with Hector and what he was doing.  She opted to stand back and observe—for the time being.

John spoke up without taking his eyes off the monitors, “Boss, looks like we got the two guys out back.  But they didn’t go down without a fight.  They took out Delta 7 and 8.”

“CAS, this is Rover.  Two confirmed intruders down by containment. I got ‘em!”

Just then, Ted shouted, “What the . . .!  Incoming aircraft from the northeast!  Looks like a helicopter!”

Hector turned and yelled, “That can’t be!  Are you sure?”

Ted replied, “Helo is already over the roof of the fuel handling building and appears to be hovering.  Boss, they came out of nowhere.  Wait . . . two guys fast roping down.  Looks like they have weapons and satchels with them!”

Hector, a former Marine, had seen his share of action in Iraq.  He recognized professionals when he saw them.  That helicopter appeared from nowhere, and the two men fast roping down were on the roof of the building and heading for the stairwell before he could do anything about it.  He shook his head, pissed, recognizing that the two others they’d been chasing were sent in to clear the way for these guys.  And now his forces are spread too thin to provide effective coverage.  He also now knew the target.  He didn’t have to look it up in the book.  The fuel handling building was adjacent to the emergency airlock of containment.  If they got in the airlock, they’d have access to containment, and he wouldn’t be able to get them out—at least not before they did what they were sent there to do.  It was clear to him now. Containment was their target!  His Rover would not be able to stop them. He knew that within a minute they’d be inside containment and out of his reach.

Just then a cell phone rang behind him.  Having a cell phone ring in CAS was unusual.  Cell phones don’t work in CAS because of the hardened nature of the building.  Yet this one did, startling everyone.  Hector just turned around and glared at the man holding the cell phone, who’d been standing there silently for the last half hour, watching events unfold. 

 

 

  • * * * *

 

I took my phone out of my pocket, pressed a key to answer it, listened to a brief message, acknowledged it, and hung up.

“Hector, my men are in the airlock. You just lost Unit 1.  Secure from the drill.  Assemble your men in the auditorium in 15 minutes for a critique of your performance.  When you’re done with that, I’ll be in your manager’s office.”

Hector looked at me, eyes brimming with anger.  I held his gaze for a moment, not to challenge him, but to make sure he didn’t react in the heat of the moment.  Or if he did, that I was ready to respond.

 Without breaking eye contact with me, Hector said, “Ted, tell the team to secure from the drill and assemble in the auditorium in 15.”

 Ted did as he was instructed.  In a monotone voice, he put the word out over the radio.

 The tension of the moment over, I broke off with Hector and walked out of the facility and into the cool night air for the short walk to the security manager’s office.  It was going to be a long night.

CHAPTER 4

 

My name is Nick Connor.  I’m the head of NeXus, a private consulting company that specializes in security evaluations for domestic commercial nuclear power generating stations.  I had to have a name for our ‘company’ to make it look legitimate, so that’s what I came up with.  I existed in the netherworld between the military and private-sector security firms and provided ‘private evaluations’ for nuclear power plant executives who wanted to know just how good their security really was.  I’ve got a Web page, as most businesses do, though mine revealed very little about NeXus or the work I do.  It’s barely one page—has a title and some contact information—but the phone number goes to an answering machine where the only thing people can do is leave a callback number.  I pick up the messages from time to time.  The e-mail address on the Web page goes to a secure server that would be hard for even the most aggressive hackers to trace, though it doesn’t really matter, because I don’t use it anyway.  I really only do work for those who are recommended to me.  These recommendations usually come through governmental agencies whose names were comprised mostly of letters. People rarely approach me directly—few people know how to. In some cases, though, people have heard about work that I’ve done at one of the power plants in the country.  Discrete inquiries are made, then screened, evaluated, and funneled to me.  If I decide I want to take the job, I make contact with the executives in charge of the power plant and take it from there.

I’m very expensive and, as I’d just demonstrated at The Headlands, very good at what I do. I have to charge something for my services.  Besides, people believe they’re getting a superior product if they pay a lot of money for it. So I accommodate them and charge them a lot of money. There are companies out there who are very public and who provide paramilitary-type services, mostly for war-torn areas of the world. They also provide bodyguard services for foreign diplomats; protection for traveling dignitaries; and, some, more aggressive services, which sometimes landed them on the front pages of newspapers.  They too charge a lot of money for what they do and employ a lot of ex-military guys with talent and skills that you can’t find in the phone book.   Good men, all.  I ought to know . . . I’d worked with many of them in Special Forces: Green Berets, Rangers, SEALS.  Those I don’t know personally, I know of by reputation.  The Special Forces community is small so it isn’t uncommon to be known by a lot of people.  Special Forces operatives value their reputation almost above all else.  And word gets around.  So on the surface, NeXus looked similar to some of the more public security companies.  In reality, I’m anything but.

CHAPTER 5

 

After the drill, I headed outside to get some fresh air, which I enjoyed even though it was the middle of the night. Hardened facilities like CAS had recycled air and started to smell like a submarine after awhile—machine oil, body sweat, food, and stale recycled air.  Smells can and often do provoke powerful memories.  In this case, that smell was a stark reminder of some time I’d spent on the U.S.S. Batfish, a fast attack nuclear submarine that was ‘officially’ decommissioned but still in service for heavily classified ops.  While on a Special Forces A Team some years ago, we had need of its services.

As I walked over to the administration building to get a soda and some chips out of a vending machine, my thoughts drifted back to that mission.

“Mr. Connor?”

Startled out of my reverie, I turned to see an armed security officer heading over to me in a purposeful way, one hand on the weapon slung over his right shoulder.

“I’m Connor.”

“The security manager is expecting you in his office.”

With something akin to a sneer, he turned and walked away.  He didn’t offer me directions or even inquire if I knew where to go.  I knew I wasn’t going to be a popular guy for a while—not after word of the drill got out.  Apparently, the word was out.  My soda and chips would have to wait.

The security manager’s office was just ahead, in the corner of the admin building on the ground floor.  Rob Ellingson was alone and, despite the late hour, looked alert, if somewhat surly.  Even though the door was open, I knocked on the jam to signal my arrival.

“Hey, Rob.  I hear you’re looking for me,” I said in a casual way two guys who knew each other might talk.  While I do know him, I’d only met him a couple of days ago.  Not what I would call drinking buddies yet.

Rob looked up from his computer screen without a smile, nodded to me, and said, “Come in, have a seat.” as he got up and crossed the room and closed his office door behind me.

I took a seat in a chair to the side of his desk, opting not to sit directly across from him.  That would give him positional authority, which I didn’t want him to have right now.  I could tell he was pissed, and I didn’t want to allow his anger to get out of hand.  I was sure I was summoned there to get my ass chewed out.  I’ve had some experience with that in the past.

He didn’t wait until he got back behind his desk before he began.

“What’s the big idea bringing in a goddamned helicopter?  You know as well as I do that’s against the law.  This isn’t some training base that you can come in and do whatever you fucking well please!  This is a licensed, highly regulated nuclear power plant.  My plant!  And you, sir, would do well to remember that!”

I didn’t say a word.  I let him vent for a while.

“Do you know how many rules you just broke?  Have you any idea of how much trouble we can get into here?  Not to mention the safety issues!  If your helo had come in contact with the transmission lines, people could have been killed, you could have caused the reactor to trip, and God knows what would have happened after that!”

I wished I’d been able to stop to get that soda after all.  I was thirsty and could use some caffeine.  I could sense that Rob was coming to a head on this, so I just had to wait.

“Are you gonna just sit there?” he almost shouted at me.  “Or are you gonna explain yourself?”

In a calm voice I replied, “I think I’ll just sit here.”

Rob paused for a moment, and then I could see him relax.  He and I both knew he wasn’t going to win this argument.  What’s done, was done.  And it exposed some issues for him.  It was time for me to offer him an olive branch.

“Okay.  Look, my guys know what they’re doing.  They’re professionals, and they’ve done this before.  There really was no danger.  As for any heat that comes this way, I’ll take responsibility for that.”

“So that’s it?”  Rob said, sitting back in his chair, arms crossed, looking at me with hard eyes.

I maintained a neutral body position and didn’t wish to engage him in an argument.  I wasn’t inclined to give him any more ammunition right now.

So he turned back to his computer in a dismissive way and said, “We’ll let you know when we’re done with the critique.  It shouldn’t be too long now.”

“Okay,” I said as I got up and left his office.  I was still thirsty and headed off in search of that soda.

CHAPTER 6

 

An hour later, I heard a plant PA announcement asking me—directing me—to report to the security manager’s office—again.  Within a few minutes, I was back in the security manager’s office with Lynn, the watch commander for the shift, Rob, and Hector, the watch supervisor.  Hector sat stone-faced and didn’t engage in banter with anyone.  It was late at night, he’d been up for quite awhile now, and his security force just got beat.  I had to give him credit, though.  He stood tall and did not start making excuses.  On the surface, it looked like he couldn’t do his job and protect the nuclear power plant.  But he knew better, despite how it looked. 

When Rob shut the door to his office to help ensure privacy, Hector couldn’t contain himself anymore.  He looked directly at me.  “What the hell was the big idea with the helicopter?” he demanded.  “We aren’t staffed to defend from that kind of assault, and you know that!  We’re a civilian nuclear power plant, not a god-damn military installation!”

I knew that Hector, as an ex-Marine, took his job seriously and didn’t like to lose.  I was also sure he wouldn’t like it if he felt he was being played.  He knew the plant’s vulnerabilities, and he was only given limited resources with which to defend it.  So he didn’t like being made to look bad, especially when he thought he was being taken advantage of.

Because of my previous conversation with Rob, I already knew where he stood on the issue, but in front of the group, Rob had to take a slightly different posture and demonstrate a more measured reaction.  He didn’t like it any more than Hector did but I had to give him credit for playing the grown-up.  I’d read Rob’s file.  He’d been in security since the plant started up more than 20 years ago, but was promoted to manager only a few years back.  Not in his prime anymore, but still looking fit with some graying at the temples, Rob’s performance reviews indicated he got good feedback for dealing with the leaders of the local communities.  That told me he knew the politics better than Hector did.  Because he worked closely with the Sheriff, Rob was probably aware that there were far more terrorist threats to worry about than Hector knew.  If people in the local communities knew what he knew, they would’ve been amazed—and then frightened—at the potential risks of having this plant in their backyard.  So even though he didn’t like it, he allowed me, as the leader of the adversary force, some latitude to test his team’s capabilities.  However, he also knew that loyalty commanded respect.  He had to support Hector’s concerns too, and do it in a way that did not appear to be blaming him for the results.  So he started his questions by directing them to the senior person on watch; the Watch Commander.

“Lynn, what happened?  How did a helicopter sneak up on us?”

“We haven’t had our full critique of the drill yet, so I don’t have all the particulars. It took me a couple minutes to get into CAS, so I’ll defer to Hector.”

Nice job on passing the buck, I noted.  I didn’t mind women in positions of authority if they knew what the hell they were doing.  I’m all about competency.  Lead, follow, or get out of my way.  But I had neither the time nor the inclination to molly-coddle people.  And I didn’t work well with people who did.  I’d read everyone’s résumés.  Even though Lynn had been in the military, she hadn’t seen any serious action.  More than likely she got promoted because she was a woman.  The military will do that.  It had quotas to meet.  Or worse, she got promoted because she had what all men crave.

Based on what I’d seen so far, I was not impressed with Lynn.  I could tell by the look on Hector’s face that he was probably thinking the same thing.  However, regardless of how I felt about any one person, my report would not target individuals.  I didn’t work that way.  It’s all about the team and the objective.

Hector looked at Rob. “All I know is we got nothing on radar, so I have to assume they dropped in on us from the hills behind the plant.  We didn’t look that way because we were told the transmission lines heading up those hills would make it suicidal for anyone to try such a stunt.”  He said ‘stunt’ in a sarcastic way, casting a glance in my direction.

Rob turned to address me directly.  “Nick, I agree with Hector.  Bringing in a helicopter, and bringing it from the east, was risky.  You had no right to jeopardize the plant like that.”

Nice.  He and I both knew the little dance we were doing here.  I remained standing, though everyone else was seated.  I didn’t think I’d be there that long.  Tempers were running high and it was getting late.  The real debriefing would come later anyway.

“I was asked to come in here and find your weaknesses and exploit them in a drill.”  I was answering Rob’s question but I spoke to all three of them. 

“That’s exactly what I did.  Remember, my team consisted of your people acting as an adversary force.  We had a limited amount of inside information, which was allowed; tools and explosives available to others; and, with the exception of the helo, we were acting within your design basis.”

“But a helicopter?” Hector didn’t appear to be placated by my explanations at all.  “You know as well as I do that using a helicopter is outside our design basis.  You just said so. That makes it off limits!”

I kept a close eye on Hector.  He was venting and in no particular mood to listen to me.  I’d seen this before.  His response to getting beaten was expected.  He has pride in what he does and I’d be disappointed if he didn’t.  Right now, Hector was upset, perhaps embarrassed.  I wasn’t going to be able to calm him down with reasoning and cold logic, and I didn’t want to waste time trying.  All I could do for now was to tell him why he lost.

I decided to cut to the chase.  “You and your guys are good, but you fight by the rules.  I don’t.  Sooner or later, you’re going to come up against someone else who doesn’t.  In a situation like that, you need to be able to adjust and respond.  You need to expect the unexpected. Tonight you didn’t, and because of that, you lost.  Your people would be dead now and you’d be on your way to losing the Unit 1 core and contaminating everyone within 10 miles of the plant with radioactive material.”

Hector looked at me quizzically as if he didn’t know whether to ignore me or try to kick my ass. He knew very little of my background. In an introductory meeting, the site vice president told the security staff he was bringing in a private contract group called NeXus to test security readiness, after which he introduced me only as a ‘confidential consultant’. I was sure Hector could guess what that meant. Hector had probably seen people like me before—tall, lean, and quiet.  Ruthless might be a better description.   To him I was probably on the fringe of whatever military groups or organizations I used to be associated with.  Hector probably assumed I liked to play by my own rules.  He’d be close in that assessment.  Actually, I don’t play by any rules at all, as he’d just found out. 

He looked at me as if he was waiting for me to explain myself, something I rarely did.  The more people talk, the more they give away who they are or what they’re doing, and I didn’t want these guys to know any more about me than they did. I wanted them to work effectively with one another, without knowing a lot about their enemy.  Sometimes, a simple thing like a reputation is a more effective weapon than actually doing anything.  People react to what they think they know, and they generally react in fear.  So the less they knew about me, the more they would rely on what they knew, or thought they knew, of my reputation, causing them to make assumptions—and mistakes.  It’s those mistakes I liked to capitalize on when I could.  It was more important for them to learn how to function without the fear and in the face of uncertainty.

But back to the business at hand.  They assigned some of their own Security Department volunteers to act as the adversary force for tonight’s force-on-force drill.  We spent the last couple of days working to assess strategies, vulnerabilities, and routes.  And in that short time, I devised a strategy that allowed me to beat Hector’s team.  Hector wouldn’t say so out loud, but if pressed, even he would probably admit to being impressed.

Standing there looking at him, I got the distinct impression that Hector wondered if he could take me in a fight.  Right now he probably wanted to see, not comfortable with the idea that he and I were actually on the same team.  As an ex-Marine, Hector was no doubt confident in his own abilities, but he didn’t know me, and I could see that something was telling him to be cautious.  Yet despite his better judgment, and his guardian angel telling him to give me a wide berth, he just couldn’t seem to let it go.

Turning back to Rob, Hector said, “You guys can do what you want, I guess. But I have to go back in there to my guys and explain to them that they got beat because they were following the rules.  Great.”

Rob sighed.  He valued Hector, but he could see Hector was angry and he didn’t need that right now. “Tell your guys they did good tonight and that we all learned something new, too.”

Without waiting for a response from Hector, Rob turned back to me and said, “I assume you’ll be in the meeting tomorrow when we debrief the vice president on the results of our drill tonight?”

I’d met Jeff Prichard in Washington at a meet-and-greet some time ago.  While I didn’t know the man well, I knew the type—intelligent, confident, and bordering on arrogant—but it wasn’t important for me to know him well.  My job was to evaluate situations and present solutions.  By beating Hector’s team, I just opened the door to some executive ass-chewing—either my own or the Security Department’s.  Either way, I did what I was hired to do.  Find and exploit vulnerabilities in a mock assault.  So I wasn’t too worried about it.

“I’ll be there.”  Sensing that there was little more to be gained from the discussion, and knowing that they’d want to discuss this more with me out of the room, I looked at Hector, gave him a slight nod, ignored Lynn altogether, and walked out the door.  I had some things to do and it was getting late.  I needed a beer.

CHAPTER 7

 

Rob looked at Hector and with a tone of admonition in his voice, said, “You need to calm down.  That won’t play well with Prichard tomorrow.”  He wanted to let that settle.  He was tired too and wanted to defuse the hot tempers standing in front of him.  “Prichard is going to want a good write-up on this, so make sure your guys capture what went well and what didn’t.  He’s going to want to know if you did all you could.  Be honest about both.  He’s spending a lot of money on this evaluation, so let’s make sure we do our homework on this, too.”

And although he didn’t really believe it would alter the outcome of the meeting tomorrow, he added, “Note the areas where Nick was out of bounds.”

“Just so you know, we had ‘em, right up to the point of the helo coming in,” said Hector.  “Of course, we might have even intercepted it earlier if all our equipment were up to spec and working as designed.”

Rob knew Hector was right about that.  He’d make sure Prichard knew it, too.  But it was getting late, and tomorrow would no doubt be a long day and this was not the time to argue with Hector about it.

“Let’s get things cleaned up and get our guys out of here.  I want them here tomorrow just in case Prichard wants to talk with any of them,” he said with a dismissive air, looking down to some paperwork on his desk.  Hector and Lynn got up and left the office.

Rob knew he’d have to document the cause of the failure to protect the plant.  That meant paperwork now, and a lot more later.  This was far from over.  There would be a lot of fallout over this, and he had to be ready to deal with it.

He didn’t like that Prichard brought in Nick to do this evaluation.  He took pride in his security force and what he believed they could do.  As far as he was concerned, this was his power plant to protect and defend.  He knew how to best do that and didn’t need some outsider coming in and making him look bad.

He let out a weary sigh.  He was getting too old for this shit.

CHAPTER 8

 

It was just before midnight when I rolled out of the plant and headed back into town.  The security staff usually ran drills on swing shift, between 4 p.m. and midnight.  It was after the day shift staff went home, so the number of people roaming around the plant would be at a minimum, with only operators, a couple of maintenance technicians, and some chemistry and radiation protection techs to get in the way.  They didn’t want to hurt anyone and preferred to run the drills when the plant was mostly deserted.  They also didn’t want others to see how they responded to an assault on the plant.  It was best to avoid prying eyes, watching or documenting their response strategies, trying to impress a wife or girlfriend by making some entry on Face Book or Twitter.

I was heading to The Tavern for a beer and a chance to decompress and check my e-mail.  Every town has an out-of-the-way bar where only the locals go, and Willits was no exception.  It didn’t take me long to find it.

The Tavern looked like it had seen better times, though that was debatable.  It probably looked like this when it was new.  It was a ramshackle place, with a rusty tin roof and a dirt parking lot.  The neon sign out front did actually light up and was on when I arrived, but the glass was broken in one corner, and the remainder was dirty and discolored from the heat of the bulbs and dust from the parking lot.  It looked like it had been there for thirty hard years.

The Tavern was located off a side road that you could easily assume led to some commune off in the woods where self proclaimed ‘artists’ or bikers set up camp for themselves. Parked out front was an old step-side, short-bed Chevy, paint faded by years in the weather and few attempts to clean or wax it.  It was hard to tell if it belonged to a patron, the owner, or was abandoned in place.  Alongside it was a nondescript four-door sedan with an Avis license plate cover, screaming ‘rental’. To the locals, this car might seem out of place—trucks, motorcycles, and old cars are more the norm—but I was used to traveling and seeing rental cars wherever I went, so seeing one here didn’t register with me as being unusual.  That would prove to be a mistake.

Besides being a remote location and one not likely to be frequented by anyone who might recognize me, it was one of those spots that actually got cell phone reception in this sleepy backwater community.  I thought it odd, really, that regardless of how much people who lived in the backwoods shunned technology, everyone seemed to have a cell phone.  They all wanted the perks of the society they so often criticized, but they didn’t want to support that same society with their taxes or their time.  Many certainly didn’t want to join the military and fight for it.  That used to bother me more than it does now.  Now I just write it off as ignorance or narrow-mindedness.  I actually didn’t want to make a call, but I wanted to check my e-mail on my iPhone, and I could do that while I had a beer.

I had my choice of tables, which wasn’t unusual for that time of night.  Other than a middle-aged, slightly bored-looking waitress, nobody appeared to pay much attention to me as I walked in. I wanted to just decompress for a while. Beer sometimes helped that. I didn’t sleep particularly well anymore.  Survivor’s guilt, I think they call it. Others call it purging my demons. All I knew was that I just wanted a beer.

I expected to see leather jackets, beards and long hair, blue jeans, footwear that used to pass as boots, tattoos, piercings, and yellow teeth . . . on both the men and women.   So it was surprising to see two guys dressed casually in jeans, sport shirts, and hunting jackets, in a corner near the bar, at a table with a red-checkered plastic tablecloth, nursing a couple of beers of their own.  They weren’t exactly dressed like locals, and if that was going to cause a problem for anyone, the two looked like they couldn’t care less.  But then, there weren’t enough people in The Tavern to care.  It was late and most of the locals didn’t come out for a beer or a burger at this time of night.

Despite their casual manner, the two men looked up and took notice of me after I sat down.  My guess was they belonged to the rental car, which meant they were passing through, but from where and to where, I didn’t know.  More to the point, I didn’t care.  They apparently had been in there for a while and appeared to have a good buzz going.  So long as they stayed on their side of the room, we wouldn’t have any trouble.

I picked a table where I could sit with my back to a wall, and got out my phone while I waited for the waitress to come over.

“Hi, hon,” she said with mock sincerity. “What’ll it be?” Everyone is ‘hon’ or ‘sugar’ in a bar like this, men and women alike.

“Whatever you have on tap will be fine.  Maybe some peanuts or pretzels if you have ‘em,” I replied.

“Cold out there tonight, isn’t it?” she asked as she wiped down the table with a damp rag that was probably clean when she started her shift many hours ago.

“That it is,” I said, not wanting a lot of conversation, but not wanting to be impolite either. 

From the other side of the room, one of the men at the other table hollered in a loud, rude manner, “Hey!  Can we get some more beers over here or what?”

The waitress stops wiping my table.  She looked over at them and said, “I’ll be right with you boys,” as she turned to go get them their beer. 

“Well hurry it up!” 

Assholes, I said to myself.  I noticed the cook in the back looked out over his grill at what was going on.  No doubt he’d seen this type of behavior before, but he wasn’t being paid to be a bouncer.  He turned his back and busied himself with whatever it was a cook does at this time of night.

Once behind the bar, the waitress filled a glass with Blue Moon on tap for me, put a slice of orange in it, grabbed a bowl of peanuts, two more bottles of Bud for the assholes and headed back to my table. 

When the loudmouth saw her heading to my table first, he hollered, “Hey, bitch, what the hell you doing?  Get our beer over here now!”

It was hard to tell if the waitress was offended or not.  A place like this gets all kinds sooner or later.  She looked at me with silent exasperation in her tired eyes.  I just nodded at her that it was okay, and she altered her course to bring the loudmouths their beers.  She deposited them on their table when one of the men grabbed her by the arm.  Holding onto her, he looked over at me with something akin to a sneer, took the bowl of peanuts, and then let go of the waitress.  The loudmouth took a swig of beer, didn’t touch the peanuts, and just kept looking at me.  I could see how this night was shaping up.  I was really in no mood for this.  I was tired and just wanted some down time.  Even in out-of-the-way places like this, I guess you can find jerks.

The waitress headed back to my table, put my beer down and said, “Sorry about that, hon,” with a nod to the other table.  “I’ll be right back with another bowl of peanuts.

“I don’t think you need to bother,” I said, as I looked back at the guy staring me down. “It doesn’t look like I’ll be here that long.

The waitress turned with a nervous look at the two jerks.  She was probably thinking I looked like a nice enough guy and was feeling a bit of regret thinking I was going to get my ass kicked.  It was, after all, two against one; and by her reckoning, I was not as big as the other two men.  I got that a lot.

I took a long draw on my beer.  It was cold and it went down easily.  I didn’t think of myself as a drinker, but I learned to drink out of necessity.  As a Green Beret I frequently had to meet with local community leaders or tribal chiefs in various countries.  Custom usually dictated sharing a drink with strangers.  So I would take what was offered.  It was a sign of respect and how we gained influence with them.  I got used to drinking all kinds of liquor, home-brewed and otherwise. Some of the stuff I had to drink was very potent.  Hard liquor, for hard men in a harsh situation.  But tonight, the taste of a cold beer is all I wanted, and the Blue Moon just hit the spot. 

Despite the fact that I didn’t think I would be there all that long, I figured I had a few minutes to check my e-mail before the two assholes screwed up their courage to come over and pick a fight.  Quite a few work-related e-mails had come in since the last time I’d checked.  Business was good and I was in high demand.  Seems there are enough issues out in the world to keep people like me gainfully employed.

As I looked over my e-mail, I took another draw on my beer, drained the glass, and looked over at the other table.  I’m generally slow to anger but have a low tolerance for mean-spirited people.  The two guys sitting at the table across from me certainly seemed to qualify.  There was a time in my life, before I joined the Army, when I would have averted my eyes and avoided the conflict altogether.  But not anymore.  I didn’t look for fights, but I didn’t back away from them either.  I’d come to believe that all men have aggressive tendencies.  It was a ‘survival of the fittest’ thing that probably went back thousands of years.  My own tendencies had been drawn out and refined through some of the harshest training in modern military history.  You were either good at this or you weren’t. As it turned out, I was very good at it.  The two men staring at me either didn’t know that or didn’t care.  It was a mistake they would soon regret.

With my beer gone, I turned off my cell phone and leaned back in my chair.  It was time.  I looked over to study the two guys.  They were big men, probably six-two or six-three, 210 pounds, maybe twenty-eight or twenty-nine years old, and appeared to be fit. They looked like ex-football players, with large necks, broad shoulders, and relatively narrow waists.  Maybe they grew up on farms, throwing 120-pound hay bales around most of the summer.  They had close-cropped hair, which could signify that they were either ex-military or para-military. They appeared to be spoiling for a fight with me, though, and that told me they weren’t too bright.  They didn’t know me and what I was capable of.  Or worse, they did know about me, and chose to think they were better than me.

They finally stood up, one after the other, and started across the small room toward me.  They moved easily, which told me they’d done this before, though I doubted they’d been in life-and-death situations.  They looked more like hired muscle and guys who’d always gotten by on their bulk, not their brains.

In the movies, it always seems that the good guy would wait until the first punch was thrown or he would try to talk the bad guys down.  But this wasn’t the movies and that was usually a stupid strategy.  There were no points for being nice or fair in a bar fight.  There were winners and there were losers.  When attacked, it was generally best to respond hard and fast and with a weapon that inflicted the most casualties right away.  It tended to demoralize the enemy.  As far as I was concerned, I’d already been attacked as soon as the guys stood up.  The gloves were off.

I was carrying my Sig Sauer with me, but I doubted it would frighten them off.  It would probably only postpone the inevitable, and unless I was prepared to use it, I would leave it where it was.  I guess I could cap one in the knees and wing the other one, but then the local police would get involved.  And I didn’t need that.  A couple of guys in a bar fight in this place would probably not raise too many eyebrows.  But use of a firearm would draw all kinds of unwanted attention. So my weapon of choice would be me.

I knew they thought they could take me.  I could tell they were overconfident by the look on their faces and the way they walked.   That would work in my favor.  I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about what to do, why this is happening, or what the outcome might be.  I just started processing information.  The first man was only a few feet away now and moving toward me.  Despite my first impression that perhaps the guy was slightly drunk, I noticed he was moving in a deliberate manner.  And drunk or not, the man looked powerful enough to inflict real damage.  I clearly couldn’t take this for granted.  The guy’s buddy, who was moving toward me, came from a slightly different direction, a second or two behind the first.  Strategy.  But that strategy would work against them.  By coming at me from two directions and a few seconds apart, I would have the opportunity to only fight one of them at a time.  Big mistake for them.

I felt my heart rate go up as an adrenaline surge hit, and because I knew with certainty that I was already in a fight that just hadn’t started yet.  All I’d wanted was to have a quiet beer or two.  That didn’t matter now.  I was here, the two men were approaching me, and that was that.  There was no doubt in my mind as to what I needed to do.  There was no hesitation.

I slowed my breathing, which relaxed my muscles.  The first man coming my way was at least one neck size bigger than me.  His buddy was about the same.  They didn’t get that way naturally, so they must have had some training.  No matter.

I stood up and moved quickly to intercept the first man now barely five feet away.  As I closed the distance between us, he was taken aback for a split second.  I was sure the look on my face had changed from just a guy having a beer to something else, something hard.  I looked at him with unblinking eyes.  I could see the guy’s hesitation now. He probably expected me to fight back but assumed that would happen only after he got to me and established his position. Just about the time that thought was going through his mind, I slammed my fist into his nose.

He fell back and instinctively dropped to his knees, putting his hands to his face.  Blood streamed from his nose, and tears from his eyes clouded his vision.  The man had no doubt been hit in the face before but probably never that hard. I doubt he even saw the fist coming.  The raging pain I’m sure he felt in his nose and face was immediate and real.  Pain from having his brain slammed against his skull from the sudden change in direction would come later.  That would slow him down, but he was still a threat.  I just needed to deal with the jerks one at a time.

The other man was up and coming on hard now.  Seeing his buddy down spurred him on.  I timed my distance to the second man and a split second later bring my knee up to my chest and got off a powerful side thrust kick to his knee, bending it backward into an unnatural position with a sickening sound of something like wood breaking, sending him reeling backward over a few tables and chairs.  He went down, knowing with certainty in the blink of an eye that he’d be walking with a cane the rest of his life and regretting how that had happened.

Although both men were down, they still had some fight left in them.  I knew better than to assume that that was the end of it.  The damage I’d inflicted on the two men, while debilitating, was not meant to be lethal, but I wasn’t done with them yet.  They’d started this, but I was surely going to finish it and leave no opportunity for them to come after me later when I left here.

I turned back to the man whose nose cartilage and sinus cavity had just been shattered and watched him struggle to stand upright again.  He looked at me with blood streaming from his nose and tears from his eyes.  With a vicious animal-like sound, he lunged forward, bringing his right arm around as if to land a haymaker on my jaw.  He still had some fight left in him, though it wouldn’t last.  I brought my right arm up to the inside of his wrist and swung my left arm across his elbow.  The effect of this was to trap his elbow and snap it backward at the joint, causing him to howl in pain.  As he stood there looking at me, with his arm distended and immobile, I put my right leg behind his, brought the palm of my right hand up under his chin, and snapped his head backward as I swept his legs out from under him.  He went down hard to the floor, unconscious.

I turned to his buddy who was picking himself up off the floor.  He only had one good leg left but he apparently wasn’t done yet.  As he limped toward me, I swung my right leg up in a circular motion and connected my foot to the side of his head, causing him to pirouette around like a drunken sailor and fall to the ground with what I was sure was a major concussion.  He lay face down on the old floor, breathing but not moving.

I just stood there for a few more seconds with my knees unlocked and ready to move, to ensure the threat was gone.  Finally assured that neither man posed any further problems to me, I stood up, relaxed my fists, and took a deep breath.  I looked over at the waitress and the cook, who were both staring at me.  This hadn’t turned out the way they’d expected.

I looked around the place at the carnage I’d just created, got out two twenties, and put them on the table.  I went over to the other table where the two men had been, grabbed a few peanuts and threw them into my mouth.  I picked up one of their beers, took a swig out of it, and then went back to the asshole that grabbed the waitress by the wrist and pour the rest over him.  It would have been the final insult to the two, had they been in any condition to watch me do it to them.   

The whole thing lasted less than a minute.  I decided it was best to leave before the waitress had too much time to notice any particulars about me.  Attention was not what I wanted.  So I casually walked over to the door, opened it, went back outside, and took a deep breath of cold, bracing night air. My heart was still racing, but it’d slow down in a minute.  The deep breathing would help that.

I found my car where I’d left it, climbed in and started it up.  As I was backing out of the parking space, I noticed a truck had arrived that wasn’t there earlier.  A man was standing by it, casually, as if waiting for someone.  Even in the low light, I caught a glimpse of him.  He appeared to be looking at me in more than a passing way.  Not wishing to pursue it at the moment, I just kept moving.

CHAPTER 9

 

Jansen watched Nick drive away.  A part of him wanted Nick to stop and come over to him, but Nick didn’t stop.  When he was gone, Jansen went inside The Tavern.  He saw his two men, knocked out on the floor, lying in a small pool of blood and beer.  If they hadn’t already looked like they needed a hospital, he would have finished the job Nick had started.

Jansen almost smiled.  They were supposed to take Nick down a peg and hurt him.  Rough him up a bit.  The idea was to get him second-guessing himself.  Jansen really didn’t think it was going to work, but that’s what his contact at Waxman Industries wanted him to do.  Cause some self-doubt and hesitation in the guy.  As he looked at the two men on the floor, he shook his head, sure that Nick was not experiencing any self-doubt right now.  The two capable fighters now lay crumpled and damaged as if attacked by an overwhelming, superior force . . . not one man.

He had no choice but to get them out of The Tavern and into his truck before anyone showed up to question what had happened.  He picked them up one at a time, put each in turn over his shoulder in a fireman carry, and lugged them outside. He was cursing under his breath as he loaded them into the bed of the truck where they lay in a heap.

He knew the men weren’t going to like being beaten like that, but he really didn’t care.  This outcome was unsatisfactory and he intended to let the two men know it, though it would be too little, too late.  Their careers with Waxman Industries are over.  Neither man would be whole again, mentally or physically.

Jansen knew the two men assumed it would be no contest.  He would like to have seen how Nick did it, but he needed to keep a low profile for the time being, which is why he was outside The Tavern when the fight went down.  Like most men in his profession, he was confident of his own abilities and yearned on some level to test them against an equally qualified opponent.  It was this ego that made him want to go up against Nick and prove to himself and to Nick who the better man was.  He wanted to fight him and put this issue to bed right now.  But the people paying him didn’t ask him to kill Nick, just send him a message.  He’d sent Nick a message, all right.  It just wasn’t the one he’d intended.

CHAPTER 10

 

Back in my motel room, I took the plastic ice bucket left on the chest of drawers and filled it with ice from the machine in the alcove near the stairs.  I needed to ice my right hand for a few minutes as I contemplated what had just happened. Hitting a person in the head with my bare fist usually resulted in some swelling and bruising.  In the movies, nobody ever seems to bleed or develop a bruise.  Out here in the real world, pain, bruising, and swelling are very real.  If you’re good, you learn to appreciate it and not fear it.  It lets you know you are still alive.  You don’t let it slow you down or stop you.  But I also learned to take care of myself as time permitted.  It wasn’t out of fear or self-pity.  It was just the smart thing to do.

As I was icing my hand, I replayed what just happened in the bar.  I wanted to attribute it to a couple of local guys who’d had too much to drink and not enough to do.  However, judging by their builds and the way they moved to attack me, it wasn’t a stretch to assume it was a deliberate act on their part. I also concluded they’d had some training in their background, military or otherwise.  This, of course, changed the dynamics of things.  What the hell were two guys like that doing out here?  They weren’t just upset about the peanuts.  In retrospect, they appeared to be waiting for me.  How did they know I’d be there, and why would they care?  I had to assume that if they knew I was going to be at The Tavern, they probably knew where my motel room was too.  I pulled my hand out of the ice bucket, deciding it was time to move to my backup location.

It didn’t take me more than three minutes to pack up my things and vacate the room.  I left the room key on the chest of drawers.  When the room was cleaned the next day, the maid would find it and the motel would send a bill to the name on the credit card I’d given them.

I opened the door to the hallway and waited inside my room for a minute with my hand on the gun in my waistband. Hearing and seeing no one directly outside my room, I peeked around the corner and looked down the hall each way.  Seeing no one, I picked up my bag and moved toward the stairwell, down the stairs and out into the parking lot through a back door. 

I assumed my car was burned and whoever might be watching me knew that I was driving that car.  I walked out of the parking lot and down a side street, knowing it was hard to be completely inconspicuous with so few people out at that time of night, but I had no choice.  Three blocks down, I found and unlocked another rental car I had set up for just this purpose.  I got in and drove away quickly.

I headed across town opposite of the location of the motel I was just in.  On the way, I made multiple turns to see if anyone was following me, but saw no one on the streets and no cars that appeared to be following me.

I moved as quickly as I could while trying to avoid speeding.  I headed for a small grocery store I’d picked out on the other side of town and pulled in the parking lot next to a minivan, the kind that soccer moms drive.  I pulled up to it and turned off my second rental, waiting to see if there was any movement around me.  None I could see.

Finally satisfied that no one was following me, I headed slowly back to the highway and out of town.

CHAPTER 11

 

Jansen was almost looking forward to reporting what had just happened to his men.  It didn’t matter to him that Atlanta was three hours ahead of him—about 4 a.m. in Georgia.  The phone call was going to be embarrassing, but not for him. The people at Waxman Industries were sure this had been a good idea from the outset.  They’d wanted to send a signal to Nick, to intimidate him¾but attempting to do so by beating him up was just stupid.  Jansen had pointed that out but was overruled. This wasn’t a setback of any significance, but he’d have to be more careful now.  He’d lost a measure of control over the situation and would have to find a way to compensate for that.

He got out his satellite phone and dialed Waxman Industries.  He’d met the man who was his contact in Atlanta only once after they’d finalized the plan for the job.  He’d insisted on this.  He didn’t want the man hiding behind the phone, so he’d goaded him into a meeting.  He also knew it would be easier to intimidate the man in person than on the phone.  Intimidation was important in this line of business.  And so it was to Jansen.

That meeting had been in a roadhouse in Arizona, along Highway 40.  The man from Atlanta seemed to know a good deal about him, which made him wonder how he came by his information.  The company had good intel on him . . . things that only the military would know.

 The job Waxman Industries wanted him for was to lead a team of company men on a mission that the Waxman executives felt he was uniquely qualified for.  He was to get inside The Headlands power plant and take control of the facility.  His contact had given him some information as to why Waxman wanted this done, but Jansen knew he wasn’t getting the whole reason.  He didn’t like operating with incomplete information, but he didn’t seem to have a choice.

Taking over a nuclear power plant wasn’t going to be easy.  Although it was only a civilian facility, nuclear power plants were well protected.  You didn’t just walk in with a gun and hold them up.  They had layers of security that he would have to beat.  They’d have security staff that carried loaded guns and were prepared to shoot to kill if necessary.  It took time, planning, and money . . . lots of money.  In addition to the job itself, he was being paid handsomely for his work.  He was making more on this one job than he had his entire tour in the military.  But it would have had to be a significant sum for him to take the risk this job required.  As it happened, Jansen was looking for work.  So he agreed to take this on. 

After that meeting, Jansen did some research on Waxman Industries.  He found the usual boilerplate, which of course made the company look respectable on the outside.  To anyone not looking further, there was nothing to arouse suspicion.  He found it was a private corporation specializing in brokering the buying and selling of component parts used in commercial electrical power plants, including those used at the large nuclear power plants.  They did business with a variety of countries, but it appeared their major client was China.

When the phone rang in Atlanta, it was again answered with a trite, “Yes?”

“This is Jansen.”

“Yes?”

“We sent Connor a message, as you directed me to do earlier.”

“And?”

Jansen paused before he continued.  “It didn’t go quite as you’d expected.”

The voice on the other end of the phone showed no emotion whatsoever.  “What exactly do you mean?”

“Those boys you sent me confronted him in a bar.  They’re now in a hospital.  I told you not to underestimate Connor.  It probably would have worked just fine if I’d had my own hand-picked men, instead of these boys of yours.”

One condition of the job was that Jansen had to use men provided by Waxman Industries.  These men were already a known commodity to Waxman, had been screened and had done jobs for them in the past.  The experience from those jobs provided them with training in how to take orders and a good enough reason to stay physically fit.  Jansen would have preferred to have his own men—ones he knew and had worked with before—but he’d agreed to use theirs—reluctantly.  And now look at them.  Before today, he would have said they looked like a capable lot.

“We hired you to coordinate this effort and implement the plan, not to complain about the resources provided.  The men at your disposal are all well trained, I can assure you.  Perhaps it’s leadership that is lacking.”

Jansen ignored the intended slight.  “Leadership of this mission is fine.  I’m just going to have to provide more oversight of the team.

The man from Waxman sounded a bit irritated.  “What’s your next move?  Are we still on track, or do you anticipate any more unexpected activities?”

Jansen thought about a pithy response but decided it would be best not to provide the man at Waxman with any more reasons to criticize his performance.  “We’re on track.”

“Very well.  Call me when the next phase is complete.” With that, the line went dead.

Jansen hung up the phone, pushed back in his chair, put a toothpick in his mouth, and smiled. 

CHAPTER 12

 

I’d scouted out a safe house when I first got into town. I always had a backup plan when on assignment.  This time, my backup plan included a small cabin in the woods that was off the beaten path—one that I’d previously rented remotely through an online realty agent.  As far as the agent knew, I was just a guy looking to be alone in the woods to do God knows what, which is nothing unusual for northern California.  I wanted to blend in.  Be invisible in plain sight, which would be easy to do here in this little backwater community. 

The house was in an area where there was no cell service. That was intentional on my part and didn’t concern me because I traveled with a satellite phone.  The lack of cell service limited communications by anyone else, though, so I was sure no bad guys would want to be out here.  Should any of them actually stumble upon me, they’d have bigger concerns than just communications.  Since my run-in with the men in The Tavern, I was on alert now and would not be an easy target.

When I arrived at the cabin, I got out of the car and took out my weapon, holding it in my left hand and just let it hang low by my side, having decided it would be better to have it in my hand than not.  I looked around to see if there were any signs that anyone had been here since I was a week ago.  The door appeared to still be locked and the ground looked unremarkable, which was reassuring, but only to a point.  I went inside and paused for a moment to listen—another activity that many people don’t do.  I just stood still for a moment but didn’t hear anything out of the ordinary. 

I crossed over to a closet, locked with my own padlock. Seeing it intact and nothing else being out of place, I put my weapon away and opened the closet to look for the small, secure gang-box I’d left there.  I pulled it out and put it on the kitchen table, opened it, and spread out the contents, including an assortment of communications gear, a computer loaded with programs you can’t get at Best Buy, a satellite up-link, my satellite phone, additional weapons and ammunition, some ‘traveling money’ as I call it, several passports, and a few other items. 

I took the satellite phone outside to access the communications satellite in geosynchronous orbit high above the Earth.  The first call I made was to Pete Sturtevant, a member of my team who’d been with me from the beginning. Pete’s the guy you want to have your back because you know nobody does it better.  Pete was a little older and a little bigger than I am, something he liked to remind me of often.  He’d spent time in a Ranger battalion before being selected for Special Forces, which was where we’d met.  While Special Forces emphasized physical conditioning, along with language training, prisoner-of-war training (known as SERE, short for Survival, Escape, Resistance and Evasion), land navigation, parachuting, and other specialty skills, Rangers believe physical strength is key to their success.  Pete was no exception, with large biceps, broad shoulders, and well-muscled legs. 

“Sturtevant,” was all he said when he answered his phone.

“Hey . . . we have a situation here that needs your attention ASAP.  How soon can you get our team up here?”

Pete knew exactly where I was and that the call was coming in over a secure satellite phone.  That, and the fact that I called at all and asked for a team, gave Pete enough information to know that I couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tell him a lot over the phone.  Something had happened and reinforcements were needed.  Every time I went out in the field, an ops team was put on standby.  It didn’t happen often, but Pete knew that if he got a call—this call—he needed to be prepared to go.  True to form, he had plans already in place.  Despite that, he fully intended to give me grief about it . . . good-natured bantering between guys who have shared time.

“Creating hate and discontent again?  This was supposed to be a no-brainer.  I had plans for the weekend.”

“Get over it and get your ass out here.”

“I guess I can squeeze you in.  We’ll get a hop into Travis Air Force Base in Sacramento, then helo to Mendocino and drive down.  Be there in a few hours.”

I smiled at his state of preparation.  “Copy that.  Call me when you land.  I’m at the safe house.”

“Will do.”

I went back inside, got out an apple I’d brought with me, and took a big bite out of it.  I wasn’t particularly hungry but I wanted to keep my caloric intake up while I could.  I kept the lights in the cabin off just in case the area wasn’t as secure as I thought it was.  It wasn’t likely that anyone was out there, but it was a dark night and I wanted my eyes to adjust to it so I could more easily see if someone was approaching the cabin. 

After I finished the apple, I decided to get some rest.  Rules of survival:  eat and sleep when you can.  I could get a few hours of sleep in before Pete and the team arrived.  I found the bedroom, took off all my clothes, and crawled under the blankets.  I closed my eyes and immediately dropped off to sleep.  I’m not one of those people who could sleep late in the morning or for long periods, especially since my tour ended.  I tended to sleep lightly and for short periods, but I had the ability to fall asleep literally within a minute of closing my eyes.  On occasion, I’d take some meds to keep me asleep for a while—but never when I was on a job. 

CHAPTER 13

 

WEDNESDAY MORNING

AT THE SAFE HOUSE

 

When I woke a few hours later, it was quiet and dark outside.  I was used to getting up before dawn.  I was just wired that way and had been getting up early my entire life. Something to do with my Catholic upbringing, I guess, and going to early Mass as a kid.  I pulled on a T-shirt, sweat pants, socks, and running shoes and headed outside for a quick run.  Exercise in one form or another was part of who I was.  It wasn’t something I had to do.  I didn’t think too much about it.  I just did it. 

A ‘quick run’ for me was a couple of miles.  I didn’t really like treadmills because the scenery never changed and it’s too artificial, so I usually opted to go outside and just start running.  The cabin was in a rural area of Willits, about 20 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, which afforded me some quiet roads, both up hill and down.  I liked that because it reminded me of home growing up.  I never ran with my iPod on.  That was a distraction to the task at hand, which in this case was running.  I learned at a young age to focus and not use distractions as a means to avoid feeling pain or discomfort.  Feel everything; see everything. Control your environment.

Like most people who run a good distance, I’d usually get an endorphin high that always left me feeling good.  Even though it was cool and damp, I quickly worked up a sweat.  For some strange reason, I liked to sweat.  It made me feel alive. But unlike most people, I liked to use the weather to help me train.  The worse the weather, the more I liked it.  To test myself when I was younger, I would go for long runs when it was raining and miserable outside.  I looked for ways to challenge myself when it meant something to me.  No crowds, no awards, no finish line—just a personal challenge. At first, I’d run short distances, like down the street and around the block.  As I got older and stronger, I’d run around the block two or three times. My challenge back then was to run longer and faster, so I’d continue to push myself a little further each time I ran.  I learned, though, that the number of trips around the block was meaningless.  It was just a number.  I reasoned if I could do ten trips around the block, then I could do twenty.  And if I could do twenty, I could do more.  It was less about muscles or wind capacity, and more about mental discipline.  So unlike marathoners who train to run discrete distances, whether it was 3k, 5k, 10k, or 25k, I would run until I chose not to run anymore.

Today I chose to run for about thirty minutes. That would give me time to get back, take a shower, and down a quick cup of coffee before I headed into the plant for the debriefing.

As I ran, my thoughts turned to the drill the night before.  Running always got my blood moving and pumps oxygen to my brain.  I just think better when I exercise. 

The Headlands had good security people.  They weren’t rent-a-cops.  Many were ex-military, and most of them were Marines, though some of them passed their prime a few squares back.  They carried themselves well and were well organized.  But they suffered, like most civilian security groups, in that they tended to think of themselves with a bit more respect than perhaps they deserved.   These guys were salaried employees who worked defined shifts, to secure a commercial nuclear power plant from a very specific kind of threat, which was believed to be minimal.  They got to go home every day to a home-cooked meal if they were married, watch their favorite TV shows with a bottle of beer and their feet up. They drove expensive trucks with fog lamps, sunroofs, and heated leather seats.  They liked to take holidays off so they could barbecue ribs or steaks and generally enjoy the perks of family life. 

I knew they were good people and my purpose in being there was to help them, not break them down.  What I struggled with most was that I didn’t think they appreciated the unpredictability of a determined adversary.  They appeared to be good at putting down civil disobedience or the occasional trespasser.  They handled protestors well, like when the local antinuclear groups, now calling themselves ‘pro-safety’, lined up to attempt a show of solidarity at the front gate a year ago.  What they struggled with was how to handle an enemy of the state.  The Headlands was a commercial facility, not a military one, a distinction the plant staff embraced, but terrorists didn’t.  If someone wanted to create terrorism, all they had to do was to create fear in an area that people didn’t think they had to worry about.  Something they thought was inherently safe, like plane travel or Tylenol.  Damage to one of the sixty-five nuclear power facilities in the country would challenge their sense of safety.  Prichard understood that too, which is why he’d hired NeXus—and specifically, me.

Toward the end of my run, I rounded the last bend in the road just before the cabin when a car suddenly pulled out in front of me.  Despite the fact that I was moving at a fast pace, the world and everything in it immediately slowed down, which allowed me to assimilate more data in a shorter period of time.  In the blink of an eye, I felt more than saw the car.  I could feel it moving in relationship to me, and the world around me.  As a result, I was able to turn my body to avoid hitting the car—or having the car hit me. 

Many people may experience a close call once in their lives and later say it was like ‘seeing my life flash before my eyes.’  _]I had learned how to do this intentionally, through repetitive training in martial arts.  I wasn’t sure if this was something I had a knack for or if it really was just a result of intensive training.  Maybe a little of both.  What I knew for sure was that it required discipline and focus, all acquired through long hours of drills and exercises.  The most difficult thing to learn in years of training wasn’t kicking or punching, doing pushups on my knuckles, or standing in stances so long I verged on unconsciousness, but to see a fist coming at my face and not blink, not flinch, and not bail out and jump out of the way.  I’d learned to ‘[_see the fist’ and move in concert with it, so I could evade it by a hair’s breadth.  I learned not to fear the fist, but how to see the fist all the way past my face.  A person could take a lot of punches to the stomach or other parts of the body and not go down.  But even one strike to the face would hurt, draw blood, rearrange cartilage, and break bones.  Few people trained in a style of martial arts where they didn’t pull their punches.  But I had.  With time and a lot of failures along the way, I’d gotten better and better at it until it appeared that the fist was slowing down.  In reality, I was just moving quicker, on multiple levels.

So when the car appeared suddenly in front of me, I slowed it down in my mind’s eye and immediately altered my path by turning to one side and allowing the car to pass, narrowly missing me, much as I would with a punch coming for my face. I did not turn away, but looked around to evaluate the situation, to see if there was anything I was missing—or needed to do next. 

The car pulled past me and stopped.  Pete jumped out from the driver’s seat with a big grin on his face.  “Hey boss! Out for a little run, eh?”

I looked at him and relaxed.  Testing each other was almost a game between us.  It was always good-natured, though realistic, and frequently ended in bruises. 

I walked up to him and shook his hand.  What we shared was a bond that most men don’t experience.  A bond between brothers, unspoken and unbreakable.

“Still learning how to drive, I see?” I said as I walked the rest of the way toward the cabin.

“You’re too easy a target for me,” Pete countered.

While the banter was a good distraction at times, right now I wasn’t in the mood to continue with it.  I had things on my mind; things that didn’t settle well.  I didn’t know what was going on, and I didn’t like that.

“I assume the team is holed up somewhere?”

“Yeah.  I have them over in Mendocino.  I figured it was far enough away from here that nobody would be looking for us there.”

“Good,” I said.  “I have to go brief the site VP on the drill yesterday.  I’ll be back in a couple of hours.  I’ll meet you back here and we can talk about what’s going on.  I’ve got the comm gear out that I brought with me, but I assume you brought more.  Break it out and get it set up.  We may need to check with Washington later.”

“Copy that,” Pete acknowledged. 

CHAPTER 14

 

Twenty-nine minutes later, I had on some Docker’s, a short-sleeved shirt, and some nondescript but comfortable shoes.  I preferred to blend in and look as if I was a local going to breakfast at a nice restaurant.  In my line of work, blending in had its advantages.  In some ways, it wasn’t hard to do.  You could say I looked average—average height, weight, and complexion.  On the flip side, because of my occupation, I obviously worked out and kept in shape.  I wasn’t a big guy by Special Forces standards.  I was 6’ tall but slight of build, much to my chagrin.  Years ago, I wanted to bulk up and tried to on occasion, but it never seemed to last.  Some of the guys I worked with look like they could be linebackers in the NFL.  But I’d learned to stand straight and tall and had virtually no body fat.  Except for my posture, some people told me I looked like a surfer, with my sandy brown hair, which was neither short nor long.  No fresh haircut look; just one that I could run my hand through as easily as a brush.  I frequently went a day or two without shaving, so I had that casual GQ look—at least that’s what my team liked to give me shit about.

But if anything gave me away, I’m told it was my eyes.  It wasn’t just that they were dark brown, but people said it was that they looked at you in a meaningful way.  Hell, I just take it all in, being aware of what’s going on around me.  But most people tend to look away from time to time when they’re talking with me.  For whatever reason, and it isn’t completely intentional, I don’t.  My friends told me it was as if I could see into them and who they were, and they didn’t like that.  I was able to hold someone’s gaze without blinking—or so it would seem.  It often caused them a moment’s hesitation when I spoke to them, which gave me a distinct advantage in some situations.  Others said it made them nervous, as if I had the look of some kind of animal who was poised to strike.  All I knew was that I came by it naturally and chose not to give it too much thought.

Being February, it was still a bit chilly outside, so I put on a lightweight North Face polar fleece jacket.  I didn’t like to be cold.  I much preferred heat to the cold, and I’d spent enough time in each to know the difference.  In Ranger training in the mountains of North Georgia, it got down to below freezing at night.  The cadre took pity on us—if you could call it that, because those guys don’t pity anyone or anything—and allowed each of us one piece of ‘snivel gear’ to wear.  It could be a hat, gloves, a light jacket, or whatever we chose, but just one piece.  The cold actually killed a couple of guys a few years earlier, so the cadre decided to let us pukes wear one thing to help keep us a bit warmer.  Lord knows they wouldn’t want to spoil us.  Ranger training was intense and was generally known as a suck fest.  It was a challenge, to be sure.  But if you are going to be an elite warrior, challenges like getting through the Ranger course, hone your skills.  So when asked who wanted to go, my hand was the first one up. 

I had one other citation I earned a while back.  It too was something I could wear on my uniform, which required everyone to salute me.  It’s the reason I was no longer in Special Forces.  Unlike earning what’s called the Triple Canopy—so named for the Green Beret, Ranger, and Airborne tabs I wore on my left shoulder, one on top of the other—I hadn’t set out to earn this one.  But shit happens.  It cost me on the inside and contributed to why I don’t sleep well anymore and like to drink beer every chance I get. I generally don’t like to think about it too much, and I don’t talk about it at all.  That’s okay too, because how I earned it was classified and not to be repeated.  That was fine with me.  It wasn’t something I liked talking about anyway.  Those things never are.

I got in the rental car and headed to the plant.  Despite the cool weather, I opened the window and turned on the heat.  I enjoyed having fresh air but liked the warmth put out by the car’s heating system.  Cranking up the radio volume, I thought through the drill again as I drove through the rolling countryside.  My team’s assault was timed perfectly.  Hector and his staff thought all they had to deal with was the ground force assault, because that was what they’d been taught to do.  Stay within the design basis threat.  As a result, they weren’t even looking for the helo.  The station security force had at least a 3-to-1 advantage on my team, and they still lost.  Not surprising, though.  Their thinking was inside the box, which made it easy to predict what they were going to do.

This wasn’t even a full-scale workup.  This was a teaser, for Prichard to see how capable I really was.  If he liked what he saw, he’d probably offer me a contract to come in and do a more thorough review.  What Prichard didn’t know was that I wouldn’t take it if offered.  I didn’t like staying in one place for too long.  I guess my personal demons wouldn’t allow it.  I’d recommend some very capable people I worked with, but it wouldn’t be me. 

CHAPTER 15

 

The road to the plant wound through some scenic areas of protected coastal lands. Nuclear power plants are typically located away from densely populated towns, mostly because local communities really don’t like having the plants in their back yards, out of the not so unreasonable fear of being enveloped in a radioactive cloud in the event of an accident.  Because the plants need huge amounts of water for cooling systems, locating them on remote areas of the Pacific coast is ideal.  However, there were always environmental concerns brought up in the licensing process before the huge corporations who own these plants could break ground and begin to build.  This was never more evident than in California, where environmentalists and Hollywood money were abundant.  Frequently, the corporations who owned the plants had to pay millions of dollars to set aside preserves or parks or nature walks, to placate the local townsfolk.  And The Headlands did just that, so that driving up to the power plant had the feel of driving up to a resort.

When I got to the entrance to the owner-controlled area, I was still a couple miles from the plant site itself.  The only evidence that there was a nuclear plant somewhere in the vicinity was the sign on the restricted road and what looked like a tollbooth or the entrance to a national park, with one security officer inside.  To gain entry, I needed to have a ‘car pass’ that was issued to all employees, something all too easy to steal from the dashboard of someone’s car when it was parked in the Safeway parking lot in town.  If I really wanted to get in and didn’t have a pass, it would also be easy enough to just shoot the guard, who was unarmed anyway, and race up the road.  But I knew there was a camera high up on a nearby light pole, transmitting a picture of this access point to the Central Alarm Station; and that if I did try to crash the gate, the security force personnel had a couple of miles of isolated road on which they could intercept me.  With ocean on one side, steep hills with rugged terrain on the other, and several miles off the main highway, this plant was hard to sneak up on. And that was in its favor.  It should have been one of the easier plants to protect, but I knew how to find weaknesses.  The Headlands had them, and I’d found them.

I chuckled to myself as I thought about shooting the guard and making a run for the plant.  Instead, I put the pass I was issued on the dashboard so the guard could see it, and cruised through the access point slowly, allowing the guard to wave me through.

Driving up the road, I enjoyed the magnificent scenery as I wound around curves with mountains on one side and the Pacific coastline on the other.  The speed limit on the road was a mere 40 mph, which I knew I could exceed if I had to.  But even I would have to be careful because the road, as it turns out, is perfectly level, with no banking on the curves.  It was built that way to allow large trucks to haul up massive plant components during the construction phase, without danger of the load rolling off the rig.

Some of the larger components were brought in by barge, to the intake area.  For construction purposes, this all made sense.  From a security perspective, I could envision various scenarios in which these design features could be exploited.  I smiled to myself as I thought about this.  Always working.

As I rounded the last bend in the road that dead-ends at the 200-acre plant site, the two massive concrete containment domes—so named because they ‘contain’ the nuclear reactors and were designed to contain the radiation released if there was some kind of accident—came into view.  Seeing them for the first time in the midst of this peaceful seaside landscape was awe-inspiring.  I’d driven this road several times now, but the sight of them still impressed me.  Seven feet thick at the base, with two-inch rebar knitted within it, all lined by a stainless steel plate, they were an engineering marvel and made an imposing sight.  Over two hundred and thirty feet tall, they also make for a very big target if someone wanted to attack from the air—something we learned in New York on what was known as ‘9/11.’  The difference between these domes and the Twin Towers was that these domes could withstand the impact of a huge jet airliner falling out of the sky.  Such an event might obliterate other parts of the plant, but the containment domes were designed to withstand it, keeping the nuclear reactor safe from damage.

However, they were really built to withstand pressure from within.  A catastrophic failure of the reactor coolant system piping inside the building would cause thirty-five thousand gallons of water, heated to 550 degrees Fahrenheit under 2,300 pounds of pressure per square inch, to flash instantly if something caused a leak in the system and this hot pressurized water was suddenly released to the atmosphere in containment.  In theory, this could happen, though the probability of such an event was remotely small.  But because it is a possibility, the containment dome was designed to contain just such an event.  As a result, this made them impervious to outside attack as well.  Still, as the drill I just did so aptly demonstrated, there were still some weak points that made them vulnerable—if you knew where they were and how to exploit them.

I pulled up to my reserved parking spot in front of the Security Building.  Perks of the job.  It was almost 8 a.m., and most of the plant personnel were already inside, at their desks working, so there was no line to get through the explosives and metal detectors.  But I didn’t head for the search trains.  I stepped up to the visitor counter and ask to see the sergeant in charge.  A minute later, a uniformed security sergeant came out and grimaced when he saw it was me again. 

“’Morning, Sergeant,” I said pleasantly and professionally.  By the look on the man’s face, I knew I didn’t need to say any more. 

The sergeant came over to the desk, looked at me without any acknowledgment or greeting, and said, “Picture ID.”  By now, everyone in the Security Department knew of the drill last night and how it went, and I was probably less popular this morning than I was last night.

The sergeant looked at my ID for perhaps a moment longer than he needed to.  Making me stand there while he held my ID was about the only measure of control he had over me.  I let him have his moment.  As he handed my ID back, he said loudly, “Fred, let this guy through . . . again!”

Fred, the armed officer on station just inside the search trains, came over and, with a scowl on his face, opened a pass-through gate reserved for members of the security staff who were armed responders.  Armed responders obviously couldn’t make it through the search train with all the metal and ammunition they carried and so were exempted from the rules.  But I was just a visitor and wasn’t supposed to be carrying any kind of firearm at all.  Fred didn’t bother to ask why he was being instructed to give me access. 

“Thank you, Sergeant.  Appreciate it,” I said as I passed through the gate.  Tucked into my belt in back and under my shirt was a modified 9 mm Glock 19 with a 15-round magazine, night sights, with tape wrapped around the grip.  For a pistol, it was my weapon of choice.  It wasn’t generally affected by sand or water and just kept shooting, which was a very likable attribute in a weapon.  

Going anywhere unarmed was not an option for me, or at least not a very good idea.  However, bringing weapons of any kind into a nuclear power facility was against the law—a law from which I was being granted an exemption.  This was a condition of the contract I’d negotiated with Prichard. So I went through this little dance with Security each morning. 

Having bypassed the explosives detectors and the metal detectors once again, I headed over to the turnstiles and swiped my key card on the pad provided.  A soft beep reminded me to insert my right hand onto a laser hand geometry reader.  The security computer checked the shape of my hand against the profile identified by the key card, verified I was who I was supposed to be, and with a click unlocks the portal, allowed me access to the restricted areas of the power plant.

A few short steps later, I was standing in front of the six-story administration building. With the exception of a three-story parking garage in downtown Willits, the admin building was the tallest structure in the county and was the only building with elevators.  The entire top floor—the sixth—of the admin building was dedicated to nothing but the internal computer systems that ran the myriad programs used to plan and track maintenance on hundreds of pieces of plant equipment each day.  It tracked the tens of thousands of parts in the warehouse.  It was used for payroll and performance reviews.  It housed electronic copies of procedures and correspondence without which a nuclear power plant could not run.  And it interfaced with the Dosimetry Department that tracked radiation dose accumulated by plant employees and contractors.  The Headlands had a very sophisticated computer system, ran its own internal local area network (LAN), and was still connected to the outside world and its parent corporation in Sacramento.  For security reasons, access to the computer rooms was restricted to only a few people on site.  However, computer access to the LAN itself, even though somewhat restricted, was available to all plant employees.  That made the possibility of a cyber attack possible—something I intended to mention to Prichard when I got a chance.

I got off on the fifth floor and headed to the vice president’s corner office.  The fifth floor was reserved for management and operations staff, so most departments had a manager on this floor.  The fifth floor was also home to the senior leadership team, which included the site vice president and directors of key line organizations.  At the west end of the floor, behind glass doors, were the offices of the leadership team members and their executive secretaries.  Prichard’s office was at one end of ‘management row,’ as the staff called it.  His office walls had wood paneling, floor-to-ceiling glass windows overlooking the Pacific Ocean, and was just short of opulent, which was unusual considering this was a power plant and not a plush corporate office.  The leather couch and matching chairs were intended to provide a homey feeling for his guests and to reduce—not eliminate—the intimidation one felt when walking into this office. 

I presented myself to Cathy, the administrative assistant, a pleasant woman who invited me to take a seat near her desk, just outside the vice president’s office.  She was efficient and cordial, but it was clear she controlled the space outside the VP’s office as well as access to it, and that her invitation to take a seat was nothing short of a subtle command. 

The door to Prichard’s office was open and people were already inside.  I respected the man’s position and had no problem waiting to be asked into his office.  Prichard spotted me there even before Cathy could let him know.  Rob, Lynn, Hector, and one other guy I hadn’t met yet were already seated. 

“Nick!  Come on in!” Prichard said as he got up and walked over to greet me.  Prichard was a tall black man, towering over everyone else in the room.  He looked like he used to play basketball for the Los Angeles Lakers. 

“I think you know everyone except possibly for Dave Street here.  Dave was the shift manager on watch last night for the drill.”

I went over to Dave, and offered him my hand.  “Good morning, sir.  Glad to meet you.” 

Dave got up and gripped my hand in return. “’Morning.” He didn’t look too happy about being there.  He’d worked all night and probably didn’t appreciate the helo fly-by in the drill. 

“Let’s all sit down, shall we?” said Prichard.

CHAPTER 16

 

Prichard exuded an imposing presence.  Besides his size, he had the ability to speak to people in a polite manner, making his orders sound like requests.  He spoke slowly and clearly.  And when he spoke, he looked people straight in the eye.  He’d clearly risen to his position for his technical acumen, though having a deep baritone voice, which had a tendency to enhance his authority, didn’t hurt much either.

Prichard opened the discussion.  “Thanks for joining us, Dave.  I know you’ve had a long night.  We’ll get you out of here just as soon as we can.”

“Thanks, Jeff.  No rush, though.  Kay and the kids headed down to Disneyland for a few days while I’m on nights. Some kind of school holiday, though I honestly can’t really keep track of those things.  All I know is its nice and quiet around the house and I’ll get some good sleep before I come back tonight.”

Shift managers enjoyed a unique relationship with plant executives.  Because he ran the plant, the shift manager usually had a familial relationship with department heads and VP’s, despite being several levels below.

“Excellent!”  Taking a sip from his coffee, Prichard leaned back and paused for a moment.  He wanted to put people at ease while at the same time control the meeting.  Still holding his coffee, and without preamble, he said, “So, Nick, I hear you deviated a bit from the script last night?” looking at no one in particular.

“I challenged your security organization, yes, sir.”  I paused to see if anyone was going to take exception to that. Hearing no objection, I assumed the security personnel had been advised last night to keep their mouths shut this morning.  I knew some of them were waiting for me to try to explain the drill last night, while looking for an opening that they could use to embarrass me.  They’d be mistaken in their thinking, though. 

“Initial conditions prior to the drill were both units at 100 percent power, no major maintenance in progress.  The time we chose was midweek, in the evening, just after shift change.  The adversary force consisted of three two-man teams, carrying the weapons and charges as outlined by federal regulations regarding the design basis threat. Two of the teams were on foot, and one came in by air from behind the plant.  The teams came in from the north, breached the fence, split up, and headed for the target set outlined in my drill report.  The team arriving by air came in over the hills to the east and dropped two men on your fuel-handling building, just behind Unit 1 containment. This team’s arrival was staggered to approximately three minutes after the two teams breached the perimeter.  Once we were inside the fence, your primary security officers responded to the threat by procedures, much as I expected.  We opted to start from a position just inside the fence, to avoid having to actually blow a hole in it.  Because of that, we delayed our team by four seconds to simulate the time we would actually need to breach your perimeter.”

I paused for a minute to allow all this to sink in before I got into the controversial part of my report.  I noticed Hector doing a slow burn and fidgeting slightly in his seat.  Everyone else was just listening, so I continued.

“Your radar capabilities are ineffective to the east, which is clearly a blind spot for you, and which allowed our helo to arrive undetected.  You have a significant maintenance backlog on that equipment, and training for your security operators on how to use it is weak.  Because of this, and a mind-set that it can’t happen here, you were not expecting an airborne assault from that sector.   As a result, your staff committed their resources to the two teams of intruders they knew about, without anticipating a need for further action. Even though we had a helo, we had fewer adversaries than you had defenders, yet we won the day.  By the way, dogs inside the fence would have slowed us down a bit.” 

Hector sat there, stone-faced.  He knew better than to interrupt.  He’d have his chance later.

“Our helo delivered two men with enough explosives to cause damage to the reactor coolant pump seals on two reactor coolant pumps in containment.  We accessed containment through the emergency airlock, via the fuel-handling building. Once we were there, your security forces were sufficiently depleted that we were able to enter the airlock.  Having gained the airlock, we had effectively breached your last line of defense.  At that point, I terminated the exercise.” 

I looked around the room.  Prichard looked relaxed and just in the listening mode.  Lynn appeared nervous and covered that by taking notes.  Hector was sitting upright and rigid in his chair.  Rob looked tired but appeared to be taking it all in stride. 

Dave, the shift manager, looked tired and almost bored. I interpreted that as indifference, which was not uncommon in operators.  They’re intelligent and highly trained folks whose job was to run a highly technical plant.  Dave probably only saw this as a game that had nothing to do with generating megawatts.  That was his job.

Not waiting for people to get up the courage to challenge me, I went on. 

“In terms of communications, your staff was slow to get info to the control room.  The shift manager wasn’t given much time to act.  Because of that, he would have been unable to bring power down rapidly enough to avoid a significant problem once we were in containment.  The reactor source term was high, which would have resulted in a significant release of radioactive material to the public had we succeeded in achieving our objective, which was only a matter of time.”

Prichard looked at me directly.  The look on his face was something akin to amazement.  He knew I wasn’t a nuclear operator.  And despite what I’m sure were some glowing recommendations about my work from the government, my knowledge of his plant and how it worked apparently still surprised him. 

“Your technical familiarity of our plant is impressive, Nick.” he said.  “You clearly came prepared.  It appears that NeXus’s reputation is well deserved.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“I assume you have details of all of this in the report you are holding?” Prichard asked.

“Yes sir.  I’ll leave it with you after the meeting, of course.  We trust that you’ll treat it as proprietary information.  It’s not the kind of thing we want getting around.” 

Prichard nodded his head, as if that were a given.  “Hector, what do you think?” he said, eyeing his security supervisor.

Hector barely took a breath before beginning.  He was locked, and loaded.  “Sir, as I told Rob and Lynn last night, I believe we had the situation contained up until they deviated from the design threat scenario.  We had the incursion into the diesel generator rooms all but stopped, and we took down the first two perps who got to the emergency airlock.  We suffered some casualties, but ultimately I believe we would have been successful had they not brought in the helicopter.  I believe bringing in the helo was an unnecessary risk to the plant, and clearly a violation of drill protocol.”  He paused for a moment, and then added, “We did all that with the existing problems already identified with our cameras.”

Prichard ignored the comment for the time being.  “Dave, anything to add?” he asked the tired-looking shift manager.

“Well, sir, use of the helicopter jeopardized the safe operation of the facility by flying too close to the transmission lines.  That’s unacceptable, drill or no drill.”  When it came to the operation of the plant, he had the final say about what to do, and he didn’t like what happened last night.  Safety was his concern, and the federal government licensed him to make sure the plant was operating safely and in accordance with all rules and regulations.  Technically, even Prichard couldn’t overrule his decisions when it came to operating the plant.

“Aside from that, I could have probably responded a bit quicker if I’d had the information in hand a bit sooner.”  Dave wanted to be on Hector’s side in this, but Nick was right.  He should have been Hector’s first call.  If not Hector’s, then Lynn’s.  He tried to soften it as best he could.  “We’ll continue to interface with Security to work out the kinks in our communications protocol.” 

Prichard sipped his coffee and let everyone’s comments settle in before he continued.  “So, what did we learn from all this, and where do we go from here?” he asked, looking around the room.

“Sir, my recommendations are detailed in the report,” I said, taking the lead on the discussion.  “We’ve reviewed the data from the comprehensive review you did last year with the Department of Homeland Security, the NRC, and your state and local law enforcement agencies, and concur with those recommendations.  In addition to that, I reviewed your strategies and target sets.  I found them to be consistent with industry standards.  I did a field assessment of your equipment placement and overall condition and found, as we said, a significant maintenance backlog.  Finally, our performance evaluation of your security group indicates a well-trained and well-equipped first responder unit.  However, given all of this, I observed several areas where you have some vulnerability.  I think you’ll find my recommendations specific and actionable.  Where practical, I included some cost estimates.  NeXus is, of course, available for further consultation, if you desire.”

“Well, we’re going to have to take a good look at your report.  I assume you’ll take the lead on that, Rob?” Prichard said in a way that wasn’t a question.  Rob wearily nodded his head.

“We certainly appreciate everything you’ve done for us, Nick.  You’ve been professional and insightful.  Your reputation is well deserved.”  Then, turning to his staff, he said, “Rob, Lynn, do you have any questions for Nick?”

Rob answered for the group. “No sir, not at this time.  We did a thorough debrief of our team last night.  I want to review Nick’s report before we finalize our report and make any recommendations to you.”  He wanted it to be clear that it was going to be his group that made recommendations, not NeXus. “But we’ve already added the known deficiencies into the corrective action program.”  Rob knew that Prichard was going to want this.  Prichard always wanted this from all his direct reports.  If there were identified deficiencies, they needed to be documented.  Rob knew that didn’t necessarily mean they’d be fixed, but at least they’d be documented.  He understood the politics well enough to know how to play the game.

“Dave, anything else from Operations?”

“Some of my guys are pissed about the helicopter.  Technically, I believe having an aircraft that close to the plant violates the security plan and our restricted air space.  I believe it’s a reportable event sir, by the Code of Federal Regulations—a part 50.72 8-hour non-emergency report, if I’m not mistaken.”  He added, “Would you like me to take care of that?” knowing full well what the vice president’s response would be.

Prichard set his coffee cup down.  He was expecting something like that.  As a matter of fact, he’d be disappointed if Street hadn’t brought it up.  “I think I’d like our regulatory services manager to look that over carefully before we say something to the regulator that we might have to retract later.  He’s knowledgeable on the CFRs.  I’ll run that by him for you.”

 Dave made his point, and covered his ass, but wasn’t going to argue with the VP, so he said simply, “Yes, sir.”

“Okay then,” Prichard said, indicating this portion of the meeting was wrapping up.  “Nick, thank you very much.  Please leave the report with my admin, Cathy.  We’ll treat it as safeguards material.  Cathy is cleared for handling it.  Thanks again for all your help.  Now, if you don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with my staff, please.”

Prichard got up, signaling that I should leave.  So I shook his hand and walked out the door.

 

  • * * * *

 

After Nick left, Hector turned to Prichard.  “Who is this guy, exactly?  All I know is that he’s a contract firm that tests security.  I also know that this is just the public version.  I have to say again, allowing him to come on site armed really has my team upset.  And flying a helo in here . . . I’m not sure that’s even legal.  What gives?”

Both Hector and Dave had legitimate issues that, if they went to the regulator or to the media, would cause Prichard a lot of problems.  Hector was clearly agitated and didn’t like the use of contractors.  Prichard knew that and gave him a little attitude latitude, but only to a point.  He didn’t feel a need to explain himself to Hector but realized this wasn’t the time to pull Hector up short.  To help soften things, he decided to offer some background on [_NeXus. _] Perhaps it would defuse Dave and Hector enough to let things settle down before they took any next steps. 

“Nick used to be in Special Forces.  I came across him in D.C. a while back, when I was at a meeting for industry executives and federal agencies.  We were there to discuss security issues, and Nick was there.  A couple of Washington types approached me about him and suggested that I might want to use him.” 

Prichard got up and poured himself another cup of coffee from the thermos on a sideboard. 

“Anyway, I had an opportunity to have dinner with him and I was very impressed with him and what he could do for us.”  What Prichard didn’t say was that Nick was also very well connected.  How high that went, even Prichard didn’t know.  But he knew enough to know that Nick wasn’t going to get into any serious trouble for flying a helicopter in to test his defenses, and so, neither was he.  Prichard looked at his security staff.  They were listening, but he could tell they were still upset. 

“Based on what we saw here in the last couple of days, I’d say this guy is very good at what he does, and we’d do well to pay attention.  It’s money well spent.  Personally, I find it hard to argue with Nick’s observations—or tactics, for that matter.”

While Prichard didn’t like the risk involved with the helo, he’d known in advance that Nick was going to use one.  He and Nick had discussed it the day before the drill.  He wanted Nick to take any heat that might develop for that aspect of the drill, and Nick had agreed.  As vice president, it provided him with plausible deniability. 

Turning to address Rob, he said, “I suggest we worry less about who Nick is and concentrate on what he’s telling us.  I’d like your assessment of the drill and his report by the end of the week.  You can pick it up from Cathy on your way out.”

Hector looked as though he wanted to say something, but Rob cut him off.  “We’ll have the report looked over and get you our analysis by close of business Friday.”

“Good.  If there isn’t anything else . . .?” 

The group correctly took that to mean the meeting was finished.  

 

CHAPTER 17

 

As I pulled back up to the cabin, my satellite phone rang.  I answered in my usual curt manner by saying only “Connor.” 

In the last couple of years, I’d put together a nice little operation.  It was a niche market and one that paid well and provided a necessary service to the commercial nuclear power industry.  So after eight years as a Green Beret, I formed NeXus and had been busy ever since.  But not that many people have my phone number, so when it rang, it was generally important.

“Nick, this is Prichard.  Seems one of my people here was just found dead and washed up on the Mendocino State Park Beach not far from the plant.  A young woman.  I’d like you to meet me there as soon as you can.”  It was hard to tell if Prichard was upset or not.  His voice was somber, but even, and didn’t show any telltale emotion. 

“Yes sir.”  I looked at my watch.  “I’ll meet you in 30 minutes.” 

I went inside the cabin and found Pete had set up an encrypted laptop, a printer, a satellite uplink, and made a makeshift high-tech communications center in this little cabin in the woods.  “Come on.  We have a development, and I want you along.”

Twenty-eight minutes later, we pulled into the Mendocino State Beach parking lot.  Being a February morning and the middle of the week, both the beach and the parking lot were nearly empty. There were only a couple of old Nissans and Chevys, with luggage racks on top, belonging to some die-hard surfers who must have had nothing better to do during the middle of a workweek.  Winter was the best time for storms, and with storms came large swells and surf.  So you could see surfers out there regardless of the time of year, day of the week, or weather. 

I parked next to Prichard’s BMW.  Out on the beach I saw a group of grim-looking people standing over a blanket, under which I assumed was the dead woman.  Prichard was already there, along with a county trooper, an ambulance, the medical examiner, and one of the surfers who I assumed was the one who found the woman.  The northern California beaches were composed mostly of very coarse gravel, instead of the fine sand found on the beaches in southern California.  Sea gulls and pigeons were pecking away at the seaweed and driftwood that had washed ashore.  There were some concrete picnic tables clustered around installed barbecue pits.  Despite the picnic tables and the barbecue pits, there was little trash on the beach.  Typical of California, most people properly deposited their trash in the numerous trash bins and recycle containers located up and down the beach.  Californians love to recycle things.

Prichard was talking with the trooper as Pete and I walked up.  A man in a windbreaker was writing in his notebook, while the uniformed ambulance attendants waited around for someone to tell them what to do next. 

“Thanks for coming, Nick.  Sergeant, this is Nick Connor. He works for me,” Prichard said.  He then looked over at Pete.

“Mr. Prichard, Pete Sturtevant, a member of my team,” I said by way of introduction. 

Prichard shook Pete’s hand, saying, “Good to meet you, Pete,” and no doubt wondering how I got him up there so fast and, maybe more importantly, why.

I looked around and wondered how long it would take before all the ‘official’ people messed up the crime scene and any evidence it might be holding.  I gave Pete a glance indicating I wanted him to get a closer look at the body and the area.  Pete nodded slightly and moved off.

I went over and shook the trooper’s hand.  “What’s the status here, Sergeant?” I asked politely enough, though no doubt with what would be taken as an air of authority.

The trooper looked at Pete walking away.  I’m sure he wasn’t happy with having us being there, meddling in his business.  But my guess was he’d already received a call from the county sheriff who told him to cooperate.  

He gave me a look as if to say he’d cooperate but only grudgingly, and then looked down at his note pad.  “We got a call a short while ago from a surfer saying it looked like a dead woman washed up on the beach.  The woman has likely been dead for several days, though being in the water that long will make it hard to determine the time of death more precisely.  We’ll have to wait for the medical examiner to finish his examination.” 

“Do we know her name?” I asked.

The trooper consulted his notes again.  “Brenda Williams, age twenty-seven.  She still had her driver’s license on her.  She also had a plant ID on her, which is why Mr. Prichard here was called.”

Prichard looked at me.  “I didn’t really know her, but I made some inquiries on my way over here.  She worked in our Health Physics Department.” 

I looked back at the trooper.  “Do we have a preliminary cause of death?”

“Well, she was in the water so drowning is a good possibility,” he said with no hint of the sarcasm with which it was delivered.  “As I said, I think it’s best to wait for the medical examiner’s report.”

 He wasn’t going to offer me any additional information.  He’d answer direct questions put to him, but that would be about it.  I knew the trooper didn’t want to share preliminary information with me, regardless of who I was—which I’m sure was still unclear to him.

Prichard spoke up. “It most certainly wasn’t accidental.  Security logs show she was on site a few days ago and was working right up until the time of her disappearance.  I haven’t had a chance to talk with her supervisor yet, as this is still just developing.  But there is virtually no way she could have fallen into the water inadvertently.”

I thought about that for a moment and wondered how he came to that conclusion.  “Do you happen to know if she was married to anyone on site?”

Both Prichard and the trooper looked at me, as if wondering where the hell that question came from.  Prichard said, “When I looked at her a little bit ago, I saw she was wearing a wedding ring, but I don’t know yet if her husband is a plant employee or not.  I’ll find out.”  Suddenly, Prichard stopped, his eyes open a bit wider, and he said, “You don’t suppose . . . ”

“I’m just thinking out loud,” I said, cutting him off before he gave the trooper anything else to pursue.

The trooper looked at me, and now it was my turn not to offer any additional information.  Things like this don’t happen at nuclear power plants.  It was almost a sure sign that foul play was involved.  In that, I agreed with Prichard.

I took the VP by the elbow and moved him away from the trooper where I could speak to him in confidence.  “You said you don’t think this was accidental.  Why is that?”

“Because there isn’t anywhere she could have easily gotten to, to fall into the ocean.  Either Security would have seen her or she would have had to access a spot that is normally locked.  Security didn’t report anything and none of the locks have been disturbed.”

“I see.  Okay.”  I glanced over at Pete, who was heading toward us.  I didn’t want to stay there any longer than necessary.  We probably knew everything we were going to know for a while.  “If there isn’t anything else for us, we’re going to head out and check on a few things.  I’ll be in touch with you later today.”

Prichard looked at me, probably wondering why we were leaving so soon.  “Don’t you want to stay until the M.E. gets here?  Shouldn’t be too much longer now.”

“No need.  We have some things we need to check out.  I’m sure you’ll know more later, so I’ll let you get to it.  I’ll call you in a while.”

“Okay.  You have my number.”

I looked over at Pete, who glanced back at me and gave me the slightest of nods as we headed back to the car.  Once inside, I asked, “So, what do you think?”

“She has bruising around her neck.  Looks like she was strangled before she was thrown in the water.  Someone with big hands too, from the look of the marks.”

I thought about that for a minute.  “Prichard said he thinks she went in the drink at the plant site.  That would make sense, but he said the gates weren’t disturbed at the plant.  I don’t see any plant security people around.  How did Prichard know the locks on the gates hadn’t been disturbed?”

“Maybe he had a discussion with his security staff about it on the way out here.”

“Maybe, but this just happened an hour or so ago.  That seems fast for Security to have checked all the gates, doesn’t it?”

Just then, a plant security pickup truck pulled up to the beach parking lot.  I watched as Rob Ellingson got out and hustled over to his VP. 

I started up the rental car and pulled out of the lot. “Interesting.”

“What’s that?” Pete asked.

“That we got here from town before Prichard’s own security manager.”

CHAPTER 18

 

Kay Street got up early.  What else are you going to do when you’re getting ready for another day at Disneyland with two young kids?  Madison and Brian were anxious to get up and get going on the rides.  At ten years old, Madison was two years older than her brother, which in the world of kid-dom was everything.  She had long, dark, curly hair like her mother and was named after the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where Kay had met her husband Dave Street.

That was thirteen years ago, before they moved out to California, and Dave got a job in the operations department at the plant.  Because Dave had a college degree and the plant needed licensed operators, he was almost immediately put into a class where he earned his senior reactor operator license.  He was referred to as an ‘instant SRO,’ because he hadn’t spent a lot of time working in the plant, like the union guys who, without degrees, had to. They had to have seniority before they got a shot at getting a license and working in the control room.  In some cases, that caused friction between the union guys and the instant SROs.  But Dave was well liked by his crew.  He was very knowledgeable about how the plant worked and always went to bat for his guys when something happened.  So his crew overlooked his moving ahead of most of them and enjoyed having a guy at the top who backed them up. 

Having a license was also financially lucrative, as it added another $1,800 a month to his salary.  With the SRO license, Dave was moved to the position of shift manager—the person in charge of overseeing the operation of the power plant from the control room.  It came with a lot of responsibility, but Dave did it as easily as a duck treads water.  He enjoyed the challenges and liked being in charge, where he had some control over his job and daily activities.  And the money was good—far better than the norm in the area they lived in.  But nuclear power plants run 24/7, and someone had to be there to run it day and night.  So, every other week Dave and his crew had to work ‘mids’—that is, midnight shifts.  Something of a misnomer, mids or graveyards (because of how you felt by morning) were actually 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.  Most guys struggled with sleeping during the day because their families had to live normal lives.  Phones would ring, doors would slam, and shouts were made.  So when Dave had an opportunity to send Kay and the kids to Disneyland, he thought he could get some good, uninterrupted sleep for a few days.

“Mom, get Brian out of bed so we can get going.  He’s such a dork!  The monorail will be leaving soon, and I want to ride it into the park again!”

“Don’t call your brother a dork,” Kay chastised.  “Let him sleep for a few more minutes, honey.  Besides, I have to call daddy before he goes to bed.  You know how he likes to go home and go right to bed.  So while we’re having fun today, daddy gets to sleep without you two hooligans making all kinds of noise!”

“I’m not the noisy one,” the girl said with as much sarcasm as she could muster, casting an imperious glance at her dork of a brother. 

“Brush your teeth and get some cereal.  And try not to make too much noise while I’m on the phone!”

Madison was already doing as she was instructed.  Kay looked over at her and smiled.  All of the child rearing books she’d read said the first child was the overachiever, even more so when it’s a girl.  Madison was no exception.  She was bright and industrious and liked to be in on all the adult conversations that went on in the house.  She generally didn’t have to be told things twice and was responsible—for a ten-year-old.  Madison scrunched up her face and gave her brother a withering stare, failing to understand why he wasn’t the same way. 

Kay moved over to the small table by the door so the kids could get up, and in and out of the bathroom.  The motel room wasn’t big, but it was clean—something Kay insisted on. But then, everything around Disneyland is clean and neat.  She liked that.  She got out her cell phone and dialed her husband’s cell phone.  It was about 8:30 a.m. and she knew that he’d just gotten off work and should be home by now. 

When he answered, she said, “Hi, honey.  How was your night?  Are you home, getting read for bed?”

“Hey, babe.  Not home yet.  I had to stick around for a bit, but I’m on my way home now.  Another long night.  How’re the kids?  Are they enjoying it down there?”

“Having a ball.  Loving the rides!  We stayed up last night to watch the fireworks, so we’re getting a bit of a slow start this morning,” she said as she glanced over at Brian, who was lying diagonally in the bed with one leg under the covers, one out, one arm on the bed, one over the side, and pajamas in disarray like his hair.

“You aren’t going to believe this, but just before I left work today I heard that the police found one of the HP techs dead and washed up on shore a few miles south of the plant,” Dave told her. 

“Oh my god!  Do you know who it is?”  Even though there were over thirteen hundred people working at the plant, Dave knew a lot of them, at least by sight.  More appropriately, they knew him.  As the shift manager, he was the one who had to authorize maintenance and other activities on a daily basis. That meant he interfaced with a lot of people. 

“I didn’t know her well, but I’d seen her around.  I think she was married to a guy in Engineering or something.  She washed up on shore at Mendocino Beach last night or this morning, but I guess she’d been in the water for a while.”

“What happened?” Kay asked, sounding dumfounded, and unsure as to whether or not she should be concerned.

“I don’t know.  They’re not telling me.  It’s mostly just scuttlebutt right now.  I’m sure we’ll know more when I go back in tonight.  They just found her.  I have no idea if she fell in or what.  It’s really weird.  I’m sure there’ll be a big to-do about all this.  Good time to be on graveyards.  Let the day shift guys handle all that.”

Dave yawned and shook his head, trying to stay awake long enough to get home in one piece and alive.  The drive home after graveyards was always brutal on him. 

“So, have you been on Splash Mountain yet?”

Kay looked over at the two kids, fighting over the Cheerios and the milk now that Brian was up.  “Are you kidding? We hit Splash Mountain as soon as we got in the park.  I can’t keep them off that ride.  I’m sure we’ll do it again a few times today.  The kids love it and fight now to see who can sit in the front.”

“Hey, I love that ride, too.  Wish I was down there with you!”  Dave really did enjoy Disneyland and Kay didn’t know who was more juvenile at the park, Dave or the kids. 

“We’re going to hit the park again for a few hours this morning, then head back this afternoon.  We’re going to stop and see Nana in San Francisco, and should be home Friday.  Then you have a few days off, right?”

“I was scheduled for a seven off, but Danny called in sick and I may have to cover his shift for a day or two.”

“Oh, honey, I hate it when you have to work overtime.  Especially when it’s graveyards!”  Dave was never at his best when working nights.  He didn’t get enough rest trying to sleep during the day, and tended to get grumpy. 

“Yeah, me too.  Can’t be helped.  Hey, it’s good money.  We can use the overtime to pay for Disneyland.”

“Ever the optimist!”

“I’m getting into some traffic so I should get off the phone.  I’m sleepy enough as it is.  I’ll see you tomorrow.  Love you!”

“Love you, too.  Bye!”

Just as Kay hung up the phone, there was a knock on the motel room door.  She went over, looked out the peephole, and saw a well-dressed man standing there.  Not thinking anything of it, she opened the door.  After all, she’s just around the corner from the ‘Happiest place on Earth.’  Jansen pushed the door open, and walked into the room uninvited, followed by Stone, who Kay hadn’t seen standing nearby.  She stumbled backward, stunned, and momentarily hesitated, not knowing what was happening or what to do.  Then, frightened, she turned and ran to her children, instinctively standing between them and the strangers.  The kids just looked up, their eyes open wide at the sight of two strange men in their room.  They sensed the tension in their mother’s posture, which is what probably frightened them the most. 

The two men moved quickly into the small motel room, as Stone closed the door.  Kay could see both men had guns drawn.  They weren’t pointing them at her, but let them hang loosely by their sides.  It was as if they knew they weren’t going to need to use them, but had them out to intimidate her.  Kay glanced nervously at them, indicating the tactic was working. 

Jansen moved further into the small hotel room, glancing around to make sure they were alone.  As he did that, Stone went over to the kids and pulled them away from Kay.  As she started to protest, Stone let go of them and pulled her aside and away from her terrified children. He spun her around roughly and held her with one arm across her breasts, which were heaving as she tried to catch her breath.  Kay was an attractive woman in her mid-thirties, and he could feel her panting with fear, which excited him.  He pulled her in closer and put his mouth close to her ear, breathing into it, causing Kay to panic and struggle momentarily against the strong arm around her. 

“What do you want?” she asked in a quivering voice.

“We need you and the kids to be quiet.  Do you understand?” Stone hissed in her ear.

“Just don’t hurt my children!” Kay pleaded as tears of fear form in her eyes.

“We’re going to take a short ride.  You need to tell your kids to behave.”

Kay said nothing.

Stone tightened his grip on her and repeated the question, “Do you understand?”

Not knowing what else she could do, Kay glanced over at her children and said, “Yes . . .” in a trembling voice.

He then moved his hand down and over her right breast as he whispered in her ear,  “I said, do you understand?”

Kay instinctively pulled back but couldn’t break his hold.  All she could do was nod her head—emphatically.  She didn’t know what was going on or why this is happening.  She was freaking out, mostly from a lack of understanding and fear for herself and her children.

“Get the kids ready!” Jansen said angrily.

Stone slowly let go of Kay but gave her a look of lust and control she would not soon forget, then gave Jansen a scowl but did what he was told. 

Kay could sense a tension between the two of them.  She didn’t know if that frightened her even more or not, but was just glad he wasn’t holding her anymore. 

Stone picked the kids up, threw them on the bed, then ripped off small sections of duct tape and taped over the kids’ mouths so they couldn’t scream.  Then he rolled them over onto their stomachs in turn, yanking first Madison’s and then Brian’s arms behind their backs, tying their wrists with nylon zip ties so they couldn’t move their arms.  He put a hooded sweatshirt over each of the kids to cover the fact that their wrists were bound.  It was February and having a sweatshirt on wouldn’t be seen as unusual, even in southern California. 

Jansen moved over to Kay, slipped his arm around her waist and hid his gun from view, then opened the door of the motel room and peered around outside.  There was a man walking from the parking lot to a nearby Denny’s restaurant, but otherwise it was quiet.  He nodded to Stone, and they hustled the family out the door and into a waiting car.  Stone shoved the kids into the back seat and shut the door, before getting in the driver’s seat, as Jansen pushed Kay into the front seat and slid in next to her. 

Kay was quaking with fear; fear for herself and fear for her children.  All kinds of horrifying thoughts were racing through her mind.  She didn’t really consider escaping.  The two men she was sitting between were clearly strong and appeared to know what they were doing.  It was then that it occurred to her that they weren’t wearing masks or any obvious disguises, and didn’t seem to care that she could see their faces.  They were either stupid or it didn’t matter if she saw their faces—and they didn’t appear to be stupid to her.  The man to her right didn’t have his arm around her any more, so she defensively folded her arms across her chest, pushed her knees together tightly, and tried to push out all the thoughts of what might happen if she didn’t cooperate with them.  She didn’t know what to do or what to think.  Obviously, nothing like this had ever happened to her before.  She’d seen things like this on the news in some other city or in scenes from a movie.  But this was neither and it took her a long time to realize this was really happening to her.

They drove a few miles down the road, away from the motels around Disneyland.  Right turn, left turn, and left again.  It looked like a residential neighborhood with rows of brown and tan houses with shrubs placed just so.  They pulled into a driveway of a nondescript, single-story ranch house, typical of the area.  It had a small front lawn with a tree in the middle of it, similar to most of the other front yards.  It also had a six-foot-high wooden shadowbox fence around the backyard.  Houses in California were typically close together and fences provided everyone with privacy, something Jansen found useful for his purposes right now.  As they pulled into the driveway, Stone pressed the button on the remote for the garage door, paused briefly in the driveway until the door was fully open, and then eased the car inside.  Kay winced and started to shake again as the door closed behind them.

“Get the kids into the house,” Jansen told Stone as he grabbed Kay by the arm and pulled her roughly out of the front seat. 

Without saying a word, Stone moved to the back door of the car, pulled both kids to their feet, and dragged them into the house, but keeping an eye on Kay.  Stone would have preferred to haul her into the house.  He’d have found a way to keep her quiet.  Instead, he got the job of manhandling the kids.  Stone didn’t know Jansen any more than Jansen knew him.  Stone had his own street creds and believed he was capable of leading this job, but the people who paid him wanted Jansen specifically for this.  He’d heard Jansen was busted out of the military and probably had some kind of axe to grind.  There were stories about him and the time he spent in the Rangers.  If the stories were true, he’d be wise to give Jansen a wide berth, though being wise wasn’t his strong suit.

“Don’t hurt my kids . . . please . . .!” Kay pleaded as she watched her kids being marched into one of the bedrooms.  “Kids, don’t worry!  It’ll be all right.  I’m here with you.  Just be good for mommy!”  

Stone leaned over and leered at her.  “Don’t worry lady.  You do as we say and they’ll be fine.”

Jansen pulled Kay away from Stone and into the other bedroom, tossing her down onto the bed.  Kay let out a startled gasp.  Immediately, he fell on her and put his hand over her mouth.  Just then Stone came in, moved over to her, and using tape and nylon ties, trussed her up the same as the kids.

“I suggest you calm down,” Jansen said in a low, menacing voice, such that Kay immediately stopped wiggling. “Good.  Stay that way.” 

Kay didn’t like the look in his eyes.  A little—but only a little—of the tension she was feeling left her as the two men exit the room and closed the door behind them.  She was alone, cut off from the outside world, from her children, and still had no idea what they wanted from her.  She felt exhausted and started to weep.

Out in the kitchen, Jansen got out his cell phone and selected a pre-programmed number that rang somewhere at plant.

“Yes?” came the terse answer.

“We’ve got Street’s family.  We also have the NeXus report you faxed to us.  So, we’re on schedule.”

“Yeah, except that the Williams woman washed up on shore this morning.  That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

Jansen thought about that for a minute.  “Okay, don’t panic.  Not a big deal.  By the time they connect the dots, if they can at all, it’ll be too late.”

“They already know who she is, so those dots are getting close together.  We’re going to have to move our timetable up.  When can you be ready to go?”

Jansen asked, “Did you make sure Street will be on watch Friday night?”

“Yes, it’s all arranged.  He’s covering for another shift manager who has mysteriously taken sick.”

“Then we’re a go for early Saturday morning.  The shock of finding the woman will work in our favor.  We don’t want to give anyone time to think too much about what they want to do.  I’ll fly out of here, hook up with our team, and be in place soon.  I’ll call as arranged.”

“Alright”.

“That is, of course, if my fee has been paid.  I couldn’t care less what your motivation is for doing this.  Mine is money.  Pure and simple.” 

The person on the other end of the phone was quiet for a moment.  “I understand your motivation well enough.  Waxman contacted me, and your money is in place.” 

“Then we’re good to go,” Jansen said and terminated the connection. 

Turning to Stone, he said, “We’re on for Saturday morning.  I’m heading back to the airport.  You know what to do here.”

Stone smiled and looked at the room where Kay was. 

Jansen read him like a book and didn’t like Stone’s expression.  He was really starting to dislike the guy.  

He went over and got in Stone’s face. “I don’t want her hurt in any way.  You understand?  We need her safe and sound later.”

Stone looked at him.  “Yeah. . . I understand.” 

The way he said it concerned Jansen.  He grabbed Stone by his shirt, looked him in the eyes, and lowered his voice to something similar to a growl.  “Let me put it in a way even a dirt-bag like you can understand. If you so much as touch her, I will personally cut off whatever parts you’re thinking about using and feed them to you.  We don’t do this type of thing.  You got that?”

Stone stared back at Jansen, realizing the man was serious as a heart attack.  He’d get his just as soon as this operation was over.  In the meantime he knew he’d have to do what he was told—and he didn’t like that at all.  “Chill, man.  I got it.”

Jansen wasn’t so sure, but he had things to do and had to leave. 

CHAPTER 19

 

Pete and I went back to the cabin. Once inside the room, I walked over to the coffeemaker to make some brew.  I thought best when I was doing something.  The caffeine didn’t hurt, either.  Obviously, conditions had changed.  I’d been brought in to do what might have been considered a routine test of the plant’s security.  But now there was a dead woman in the bay, and I was sure the two guys from The Tavern were in a hospital somewhere, seeking medical treatment.  This was not normally how these trips went, even for me.  This was a civilian power plant, not a military installation or target.  It would have helped if I knew who was behind all this and what their motivation was, but I lacked a definitive explanation for whatever was going on. 

My instincts told me this whole situation was heading south, fast.  I’d just written up a detailed report on the security readiness at the plant, which, if compromised, could be used as a good playbook for the bad guys.  I didn’t believe in being paranoid—but cautious and skeptical, yes.  I analyze a situation and take action based on the facts and the most probable outcome.  That’s why I’m good at what I do.  But I was stymied on this one.  I just didn’t have enough facts to analyze. 

The coffeemaker gurgled, signifying it was done brewing, though nobody actually brewed coffee anymore.  Now they just dripped hot water through some grounds.  It was easy to do and something I took for granted.  Gone were the days of percolators—a type of coffee pot I’d heard about but had never used myself.  I pulled a mug from the cabinet and poured myself a cup.  Normally I loved the aroma of fresh-brewed coffee, but today I barely noticed it.  As I took a sip, I appreciated that this was quickly turning into something I hadn’t been expecting.  Something was wrong, and as the caffeine kicked in, my mind started to extrapolate what little I did know.  I had a few facts and several observations that were all somehow connected. 

It helped sometimes if I talked through it.  I pulled my satellite phone out of my pocket and dialed the restricted access number I had for the site vice president.  Prichard answered with a simple, “Yes?”

“We need to talk.  I’m on my way in.  I’ll be there in an hour.”  It really wasn’t a question or a request. 

“I’ll be here,” said Prichard.

Hmmm. No arguments, no questions about why I wanted to see him.  That definitely piqued my curiosity. 

I went into the living room where Pete was doing a cold read on the security evaluation report. Sometimes seemingly unrelated incidents can mean something to someone unfamiliar with the details.  I needed his take on this but knew it would be a little while before he could formulate an opinion.

“When you’re done with that, see if you can hack your way into the sheriff’s LAN and get us some information.  What do they know that we don’t?”

Pete’s specialty on the teams had been communications and intel.  He brought that expertise with him to NeXus, making him an extremely valuable guy to have around. 

“Will do,” was all he had to say.  “What are you gonna be doing?”

“I need to go back and talk with Prichard.  He knows something he’s not telling us.” 

With that, I threw on a light jacket and left for the plant.

CHAPTER 20

 

Prichard was sitting in his office talking to someone when I arrived fifty-eight minutes later.

“Hi, Nick.  Come on in,” he said, getting up and shutting the door behind me—something he didn’t do the last time I was there. 

As I moved into his office, my eyes were drawn to the woman sitting in one of the comfortable armchairs.  Curious as to why she was there, I just looked at Prichard.  He knew I was coming, and the fact that this woman was there meant that she was part of this somehow.  The thought went through my mind that he probably wanted to see me, too, which might explain why he agreed to meet me on such short notice. 

“Hello.  Marti Callahan,” she said brusquely, reaching a hand out to me.

I glanced again at Prichard, who was taking his seat on the leather couch, obviously intending me to meet her.   I took Marti’s hand in mine and returned her gaze. 

“Hi.  Nick Connor,” I replied, moving over to the second armchair.  There was a faint scent of perfume hanging in the air.  They say that smells evoke powerful memories.  It had been a long time since I’d been in the presence of a woman who woke up my senses as this woman was doing right now. 

Prichard spoke up.  “I asked Marti to be in on this meeting.  She’s our senior resident NRC inspector and just flew in from Washington D.C.  I’ve briefed her on what you’re doing here, so you may speak freely in front of her.”

I knew that each nuclear power plant had a representative from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission on site to keep a watchful eye on how the plant was being run, though Marti looked young for such a responsible position.  She appeared to be in her early-thirties.  I knew you only get the position of senior resident after many years of experience or because you’re very good at what you do.  Because of her age, I assumed this meant she was very good at what she did.

She was an attractive woman with a slight build, short, wavy black hair and an almost milky white skin under a gray silk blouse that hung gracefully off her shoulders.  Dark blue business slacks covered what I assumed would be attractive legs, though why I was thinking that I didn’t know.  Offsetting her ethereal complexion were almost steel-gray eyes with just a hint of makeup on them.  The combination of all this created a striking effect, which would have caused me to notice her in a crowded bar had she not been sitting in a chair next to mine.  She looked decidedly out of place in an industrial facility where almost everyone wore jeans, steel-toed boots and hard hats. 

When I arrived I’d assumed this was my meeting, though now that the NRC was there, I wasn’t so sure.  Nonetheless, I turned to Prichard and began.

“There’s something I felt you should know.  Last evening after the drill, I stopped by The Tavern for a beer.  There were two guys in there who tried to pick a fight with me.”

“You don’t look any worse for wear.”

“No, but they do.”

“You didn’t think it was important to tell me this earlier today?” Prichard said with some irritation in his voice.

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t.  Bar fights aren’t necessarily unusual in the business I’m in.  Besides, at the time I had no reason to believe it had anything to do with the plant.  But after the events of this morning, I felt it was important to bring you up to speed on this.”

“If it’s not that unusual, why tell me now?” Prichard asked.

“These guys weren’t a couple of locals out for a beer in the middle of the week.  What they did was deliberate.  They were waiting for me.”

“Waiting for you?”  Prichard paused for a moment, folded his hands, put them to his mouth, and looked over them at me as he absorbed the information.  It appeared that he didn’t know what it meant either, though he was no doubt questioning the odds of these otherwise seemingly unrelated incidents happening in the last day.

“Where are these gentlemen now?” Prichard asked.

“My guess is that they’re in a hospital somewhere.  When I left them, they were in need of some serious medical attention.”

“I see,” he said as if waiting for me to continue. 

He knew there was certainly more or I wouldn’t have asked for this meeting.  “You’ve got a dead plant employee washed up on a beach not far from here.  As you’ve already noted, it’s hard for someone to fall in around here accidently.  You also said the locks on the gates and fences hadn’t been disturbed.  That means a ‘Farmer Brown,’ a term referring to an insider who was batting for the other side.”

Prichard looked at Marti, causing me to do the same. Her demeanor hadn’t changed, which I found strange.  I didn’t know her well enough yet to venture an opinion as to why. 

I continued.  “All of this happened coincident with my being here and doing an evaluation of your security status.”  I paused for a moment, to avoid sounding rushed or amped up. “This morning at the beach, you said you didn’t know if the dead woman was married to someone else on your staff.  My guess is she was.  And I’m betting he’s someone with a critical piece of information related to the operation of this facility.”

Prichard’s eyes narrowed at my observation.  “I’m sure you saw Rob arrive at the beach just after you left.  He told me she is—was—married to a containment ventilation system engineer.”

I could sense his discomfort, so I slowed down for a minute, took a deep breath and considered the ramifications of what I was about to tell him.  I didn’t know what it all meant yet, but I felt sure the information, and my suspicions, was important to what was going on.

“I need to know who you gave our report to.”  While continuing to speak to Prichard, I look at Marti and said,  “And I need to know why your senior resident is in this meeting.”

Prichard was quiet for a moment, as if weighing his words and considering the consequences of them.  He and I both knew my report was a very detailed analysis of the plant’s defensive systems, protocols and problems.  If it had been compromised in any way, he now had a significant problem, and I was leading him to a place he was likely not prepared to go. 

Prichard bristled at the comment. “I’m not sure I like your inference.”

“My apologies, but I’m not inferring anything yet.  I’m just trying to develop information.”

“As you may remember, I gave the report to Cathy and asked her to give it to Rob,” he said.  “As head of Security, it’s his job to evaluate it.  I wasn’t happy with his performance in the drill.  He and his staff are accountable for making corrections.  It’s only natural that I give him the report,” he said a little bit too defensively.  “Who he might have given it to after that, I don’t know.  I’m sure someone else in his group is working on it, but they know better than to make copies.” Then he added, as an afterthought as if trying to convince himself of something, “As it’s safeguards material, they’d have it locked up when it’s not in their possession.  That’s standard operating procedure for handling information of that kind.” 

That was a funny thing for him to say.  It was as if he was trying to sound convincing that the document was well protected—and yet, didn’t believe it was.  He paused for a moment as if to consider how he wanted to answer the second part of my question.  He had to know that bringing Marti in on this conversation was going to raise questions from me.  So either she was there to hear what I had to say, or to present information that he wanted me to hear.

“Ms. Callahan is here because she has some disturbing news that bears on this conversation.  Marti?” he said as he turned the conversation over to her. 

I took note of the fact that she was referred to as ‘Ms.’

Marti looked hesitantly at Prichard, seeking confirmation that she should really proceed.  Seeing no hesitation from him, she looked at me.  “Mr. Connor, before I begin, it’s important that I know what your security clearance level is.” 

She looked apprehensive as if she was on shaky ground having to speak candidly in front of me.  Her reluctance was obvious, though understandable.  She really didn’t know anything about me, and her body language suggested that she clearly wasn’t thrilled about revealing privileged information without at least asking for some verification of my security level, despite what Prichard surely told her. 

“For purposes of this conversation, let’s say I’ve got an ‘L’ clearance obtained through, and documented at, the Sequoyah Nuclear Station, in Tennessee.  You can check on that if you’d like.” 

My clearance status was actually much higher than that, and probably significantly higher than hers; but that wasn’t information she needed to know.  So, because I was dressed as a civilian, I told her I had the civilian equivalent to a secret clearance.  That should have been more than adequate to the discussions at hand.  Given the circumstances, and the fact that Prichard continued to say nothing to stop her, I assumed she was mollified—at least for the moment.  Despite the unusual circumstances, I found myself staring at her for other than professional reasons. 

“Very well.  I assume that will check out,” she said.  “Mr. Prichard told me that you were here doing an evaluation of his security readiness.  So in addition to your clearance level, I will assume that means you have a ‘need to know.’” 

I said nothing in response.  I just looked at her—something I was starting to enjoy.

She turned to Prichard now. “I just returned from NRC headquarters in White Flint, Maryland.  When I found out your employee was found in the bay, I called the deputy director of Nuclear Security and Incident Response to let him know.  As it turns out, he had information—whether as a result of this or not, I don’t know—that he wanted me to share with you right away.  NSIR believes there’s going to be a terrorist event out here on the West Coast within the next few days.  The FBI has verified the threat and briefed the NRC.  The information they have is deemed credible by the FBI threat assessment group.”

The mood in the room changed immediately.  “Credible . . . meaning, we have a timetable?” asked Prichard. 

Marti looked him directly in the eye.  “Yes.  One of the reasons the FBI is taking this so seriously is that the information intercepted refers to two distinct targets.  One is the Western Intertie.  Taking down the electric transmission line running up and down the western United States would be significant, as you can imagine.  But the second part of this threat involves a nuclear power plant on the West Coast, of which there are three.” 

Marti paused, looking at the two of us, no doubt trying to gauge our reaction to this information.  She had to be nervous and struggled not to show it in front of us.  Like it or not, nuclear power is a man’s world and she was apparently moving up fast, in part because of her ability to stay calm—at least on the outside.

Prichard shot me a look like he was considering what he’d just heard, too.  Even something happening off the site and away from the plant could have negative repercussions for his plant, even if it didn’t represent a direct threat to The Headlands.  Taking down the Western Intertie would disrupt power to millions of people throughout the western states. His power plant would be okay, though, because the generators would automatically shut down when they sensed the voltage and frequency dip that would occur within a millisecond of the grid disturbance.  As a matter of fact, this happened a couple of years ago in a freak storm that blew through the Altamont Pass area east of Oakland.  It actually blew down some of the transmission towers. The Headlands survived that transient with no problems.  However, that was nature and this threat was manmade.  And in any transient involving these huge nuclear units, there was always a potential for damage.  A reactor and turbine trip from 100 percent power was something they would prefer to avoid. 

I knew better than to think Marti was done.  My bet was that she had more that she needed to share with us.  I watched as she took a deep breath before continuing.  “They also believe the terrorists have ties to al-Qaida.”

Prichard’s body language changed as he shifted in his seat.  He clearly didn’t like hearing that.  From my experience, I knew this changed the level of seriousness—and the number of federal government agencies involved—by an order of magnitude.  I was sure I didn’t need to tell him that. 

Marti went on, “While the information we have doesn’t specify The Headlands as the target, we nonetheless believe that it is.” 

“As you said, there are three nuclear stations in California.  What makes you think we’re the target?” asked Prichard.

“The information we have indicates that this will happen within the next few days.  Given that time frames were used and targets indicated, it’s a good sign the threat is real.”

“That’s not very specific,” Prichard said.  “And it doesn’t rule out the other two plants.  Again, why do they think it’s us?”

Marti began to fidget a bit in her chair, indicating disinclination on her part to continue, not knowing how Prichard would take the next piece of information.

“The FBI believes someone on your staff has been compromised.  The woman’s death was not accidental.  The FBI has reason to believe she was murdered and then put in the water.  And that puts The Headlands at the top of the list of possible plants to be attacked.”

Prichard looked at me.  I tried not to show any reaction to this conclusion.  I’d already concluded that and I was sure Prichard had his suspicions, too.  He had to know.  He was a bright guy, and there were just too may things lining up.  But hearing someone else say it out loud seemed to confirm it for him.  

He stood up and started pacing around his office, fists clenching and unclenching subconsciously.  Then he stopped and for several moments, just stared out his window overlooking the Pacific Ocean—normally a tranquil sight.

“Who else knows about this?” Prichard asked in a low voice, clearly trying to keep his own emotions in check.

“NSIR leadership in Washington D.C., NRC regional headquarters in Arlington, Texas, and the NRC commissioners.  The FBI obviously knows, and that probably means Department of Homeland Security knows.  We also believe your local law enforcement has been briefed.  The FBI likes to keep them in the loop.  As we both know, your sheriff is cleared for this kind of information.”

I noticed Prichard had a distant look on his face, as if processing the information in the analytical way he approached problems in the power plant. 

“As of now, nobody else is to know.  The circle is already too wide to control.  But for now, this is to be held in this room only.”  Prichard then addressed me directly.  “What do you think?”

I’d been sitting quietly, listening, watching, and absorbing the information.  I knew that sooner or later I’d be asked for my input.  I often liked to keep some of what I thought to myself so as not to taint others’ abilities to provide original thinking.  But I had information they didn’t have.  Information was like that.  It came along in bits and pieces.  Being able to put it all together to form a cohesive conclusion was something you needed to be able to do to be successful in this business.  Sometimes you didn’t know you had vital information or a piece of the puzzle.  And sometimes it just fell into place.  

“It would help if we knew who was behind this and what their motive is.  However, it’s not al-Qaida.” 

“And why is that?” asks Marti, indignantly.  “I just told you the information has been verified.  I can assure you that it’s solid intelligence.”

Marti was looking at me disapprovingly.  She apparently didn’t like being contradicted.  But as I looked back at her with unflinching eyes, her look turned more to one of surprise.  I’d seen that reaction before.  Something about my look was making her uneasy for the first time.  I found myself hoping it wasn’t just the technical issues that were making her squirm. 

“Oh, I’ve no doubt the threat is real,” I said, not breaking eye contact.  “But unless they signed their name to it, trust me, it’s not al-Qaida.  I know something of their tactics.  And remember, I told you I was just in a bar fight with two ex-military types.”

“What’s your point?” asked Marti, becoming defensive again.  “A bar fight in some hick town hardly qualifies as national intelligence.”  She looked at me now like who the hell did I think I was and what could I possibly know about their tactics?

“The point is, Ms. Callahan, the men in the bar had a partner—someone pulling the strings.   That man was outside The Tavern, in the shadows, watching me.  The fight was a deliberate attempt to slow me down or warn me off.  Why would they want to do that?  The answer is they obviously know I’m here and want me out of their way for some reason.  These events are all connected.”

Marti leaned back in her chair again.  “That’s all well and good, but doesn’t explain why it can’t be al-Qaida?”  She wasn’t able to connect the dots yet.

“I saw the man in the shadows.  I know him,” I said. “And he isn’t a Muslim.  He used to be an Army Ranger.” 

Prichard wheeled around and stared at me, hard. 

CHAPTER 21

 

Jansen leaned back in one of the comfortable leather seats in the private Cessna jet owned by Waxman Industries, as he headed from John Wayne Airport to a private airstrip near Ft. Bragg, just up the coast from San Francisco.  He was drinking water and reading the NeXus report on the defensive systems at the plant.  He smiled to himself.  It was so easy.  He’d let Nick Connor do his work for him.  He knew Nick from the Army.  He’d been in the Army for eight years and was a veteran of several deployments to ‘the sand box’—as the guys down range referred to Iraq—when he’d been selected for the Ranger program.  The program was as intense as any in the military and consisted of a very physical ten weeks, including several weeks learning small arms tactics at Fort Benning, Georgia, a few weeks in the mountains of north Georgia learning mountain climbing and cold weather tactics, and a few weeks in the swamps of Florida learning how to survive in snake-infested waters.  Only a few of the Army’s toughest were selected for this school.  Of those who began the grueling school, only thirty percent made it all the way through and earned the Ranger tab and the right to wear the tan beret, signifying a member of a Ranger Battalion. 

It was a difficult program to get into, but one that Jansen felt he deserved to be in.  He was strong and experienced.  He had a barrel chest, tattoos on his well-developed arms, and a thick neck—every bit the part of what the movies portray as soldiers.  He knew how to fight and liked to prove it every chance he got.  To him, entertainment meant going to bars at night and picking fights with the biggest guys in the place.  He’d get some cuts and bruises, but it was nothing compared to the hurt he inflicted on his opponents.

Despite being an elite program, Ranger school was something of a consolation prize for him.  Before being selected, he’d tried to get into the significantly more elite two-year Green Beret program, otherwise known as Special Forces.  It seemed he was not up to the task and washed out in the assessment and selection phase—the grueling first three weeks of the program that used physical and mental punishment to drive most of the wanna-bees to sheer exhaustion and mental collapse.  Jansen could handle the physical aspects of the training, but the cadre of instructors kept riding his ass.  Always in his face with their rules.  They didn’t tell you everything you needed to know, but somehow expected you to find out where to be and when to be there.  It wasn’t his fault he arrived late at times, or showed up missing key pieces of equipment.  Everywhere else in the Army, they made it very clear where you have to be and by when.  But not in SF training.  They wrote instructions, including what to wear, on a white board outside the chow hall, and then changed them with little or no notice.  Because he showed up late or unprepared, the whole group got smoked with punishing physical exercises.  The cadre would work them until they dropped or puked their guts out.  This didn’t endear Jansen to the other candidates.  So at the end of the three-week period, the final activity was for each candidate to rate the others.  If the other candidates rated you as someone they did not want to go to war with, they would ‘peer you out’.  Not surprisingly, Jansen didn’t make the cut.  He was just too much of a prick.  The cadre could have saved him if they’d wanted to.  But in this case, they chose not to.  And the senior instructor was Nick Connor.  Jansen, of course, let everyone know he blamed Nick and all the other pantywaists for his failure in assessment and selection, taking no responsibility for his own actions.

Following that, Jansen got a shot at Rangers, where he muscled through, served a tour in a Ranger Bat, did some work for Regimental, then got out and decided to put his skills to better—and more profitable—use.

Sitting in the luxury of the private jet, Jansen believed he got the better deal, as he was poised to make a lot of money off Connor’s work.  Connor had somehow started up a contract group called NeXus, short for Nuclear Electric Utilities Security, and had what appeared to be a lucrative business providing consulting work to nuclear power plants.  But all Jansen had to do was wait for Connor to do the site evaluation, steal the results, and use the purloined information in a very profitable way.  This was specifically what Waxman Industries hired him for.  Company executives somehow knew he had a past with Connor and would want to square things.  They were sure this gave him an added incentive to complete the job no matter what.  He wasn’t going to want to let Connor get the better of him—again. 

Reading through the file, Jansen smiled to himself.  He had to admit, Nick did a good job.  He was thorough in his evaluation.  But perhaps more importantly, he drew conclusions based on what he found.  Those conclusions read like a playbook.  This was going to be a cakewalk, he thought to himself.  He already had his assets in place and money to finance the operation.  Wherever the money came from, he didn’t need or want to know.  He was contacted periodically and given information either through intermediaries or on a clean cell phone provided to him via FedEx.  He’d been waiting for a few of the final pieces before he was ready to go.  Those pieces were intel on the site perimeter defense weaknesses, which were now all neatly outlined in the report on his lap. 

He would implement his takeover of the plant on Friday night; and by the end of the weekend, he’d collect the money owed him.  He fantasized about going to southern Spain, taking a well-deserved vacation in a house overlooking the Mediterranean, and hiring himself out to the highest bidder for a few ‘specialized’ jobs.  A few more jobs like this, and he could live extremely well the rest of his life. 

He put the file down, leaned his seat back, and closed his eyes.  One thing he’d learned in Ranger training was to rest every chance he could.  He’d be busy tonight.  He could sleep more next week when this job was over.

CHAPTER 22

 

Prichard went back to the couch, sat down, and leaned forward with his elbows on his knees, intimidating anyone in his line of sight, in this case, Marti and me. 

“Okay.  What do you recommend, Nick?”   

I could see Marti stiffen when he asked me the question, not her. I thought about it for a minute.  Many things came to mind, not the least of which was that I needed to decide how involved I was willing to get in this.  Things had changed, and this was no longer a research project.  This was getting real now, and I wasn’t sure how far Prichard would be willing to go.  I needed to probe that before I committed to anything.

“You have a couple of problems,” I started out with.  “One is that you don’t know the specific nature of the threat.  That makes it hard to design a strategy other than the ones your security department already has.  Your security plans are not unlike those at other nuclear power plants.  But as we just saw, it’s possible to beat your system with just a little extra effort.  So not knowing the nature of the threat, you’ll have to rely on your security staff.  And according to the information Marti just provided us with, we need to assume the bad guys have someone on the inside.”

Prichard looked far from relaxed as he continued to lean in toward me as I spoke.

“Two, is that they’ve demonstrated they’re willing to murder someone to advance their cause, so they’re a determined lot.” 

Just saying it out loud made Prichard look like someone had just knocked the wind out of him.  Murder . . . at his power plant.  This was nothing he’d ever dreamed could happen.  He was an engineer.  He took a deep breath and looked out the window, looking defeated.  This wasn’t what he’d signed up for.

“Your security team has been beaten twice in a week; once in a drill and once for real when they failed to stop the murder of one of your employees.  I’d say you’re going to need outside assets . . . people you can trust or at least that have no other vested interest in what’s going on here.”

Prichard was no longer looking at me but I was sure he was listening intently, taking it all in.  Things were happening fast, and not knowing who on his own staff could be trusted presented him with some very real problems.  He nodded his head slightly, as if to indicate he could immediately see my point.  He knew bringing in an outside team would cost money and money he hadn’t budgeted for.  But as much as it might cost to bring in an outside team, he knew the cost of not doing anything would be significantly higher if he didn’t avert this threat. 

“What about the report that you put together?  What do we do about that?  I need to get that report back and put it under lock and key,” Prichard wondered out loud.

I shook my head.  “Don’t bother.  It’s probably already been compromised.  If it has, the damage is done.  If it hasn’t by now, it probably won’t be.  Either way, asking for it back now will only tip off the insider that we’re looking for him.  For now, it’s best to move quickly and without much notice.  Don’t give anything away and don’t make mistakes.”

I turned and looked at the senior NRC resident.  No matter what kind of outside assets were brought in, I knew they’d clash with the local law enforcement and the FBI.  The FBI always wanted to be in charge and didn’t want to let anyone else know what they were doing.  Meanwhile, the local sheriff would want to exert his authority as well.  Turf wars.  I’d seen them before.  Well-meaning guys, all of them, but too much focus on who was in charge, and less on what needed to be done. 

Whether Prichard knew all this or not, I decided to sum it up for him and make it clear in front of the NRC resident. 

“You know the FBI is going to want to take charge of this situation.  You may or may not have a choice in that.”  Turning to look at Marti, I continued talking to Prichard, “I’m surprised you haven’t been contacted already.”

Marti returned Nick’s stare.  Despite his challenge to her, his self-confidence was giving her goose bumps.  His good looks and lean build didn’t hurt, either.  Her initial anxiety about both the threat and about being involved in a murder investigation had turned into excitement.  However inappropriate it might be, she was now working with two very powerful men, in a situation she wouldn’t wish on her worst enemy.  Their aggressive behavior and the incredible situation she found herself in gave her an adrenaline rush.  She didn’t know if she should be pleased with that or ashamed.  All she knew was that she instinctively wanted to be on their side.  And on the edge of her consciousness, she knew she wanted to get to know Nick better.  That was distracting to her, though, and she’d have to keep those feelings compartmentalized. 

“Let me look into that,” she volunteered.  “I think you’re probably right though.  The FBI will have the lead on this.  However I don’t have any reason to believe that’s not a good thing.” 

Marti appeared to be testing the waters a bit.  I knew she’d little experience in this sort of thing, but she was, after all, a member of the federal government, and she probably felt obligated to exert some authority in this situation. 

Prichard said, “I agree with your assessment so far, Nick.  I assume I can expect you to put something together to help us out?”

I took this as the go-ahead to keep my team in place—for a fee, of course.  But I didn’t want to give away my hand just yet. 

“Yes, I can help you out, but as I said, I expect the FBI and the sheriff will want to take care of it.”

“I’m sure you and your team will work together with them in a collaborative manner.” 

The way Prichard said it left no doubt in my mind that he wanted me to walk that tightrope between being subordinate to the FBI and working on my own.

“I can get a team in here to help you, yes.  My recommendations will include the name of someone to lead the team.”  I knew that wasn’t going to be received well.  Prichard was familiar with me now, even though he didn’t know me well, and it was only natural that he’d want and expect me to take charge of this.  So his look of surprise was to be expected, even if it didn’t happen too often. 

“I assumed you’d lead the team.  Was I mistaken in my thinking?”

“I have other commitments, sir.”

“I’m sure whoever you recommend would be very competent, especially if you recommend him.  But I prefer you to take charge of this situation for us.” 

Prichard said it in a way that would normally leave his listeners with the impression that he’d made a decision and that was the end of it.

“I’m sorry, sir.  As I said, I have other commitments.  I’ll get you a name as soon as possible.” 

With that, I gave Marti a slight smile, stood up and extended my hand to her.  She paused only briefly, and then took it in her own.  When our hands meet, I found hers was warm, although a bit clammy with perspiration.  As if she could tell what I was thinking, she pulled her hand away quickly.  Blood rushed to her face and gave her cheeks a nice rosy color.  She turned her eyes away from mine, no doubt embarrassed by the uncontrollable physical response.  She probably hoped I didn’t notice, which I found strangely attractive.  My face softened with a hint of a smile, but she was no longer looking at me to see it. 

Choosing not to embarrass her any further, I turned to shake hands with Prichard.  I looked him in the eye for a moment longer than necessary, hoping to silently convey a message.  I was hoping he took notice of how I closed the issue in spite of his insistence that I be involved.  He was an intelligent man and I didn’t want him to pursue this any further right now.  So when he shook my hand and said, “Thank you for all your help,” and nothing more, I knew he got the message.

“No problem.”  With that, I left the room without looking at Marti again.

 

  • * * * *

 

With Nick gone, Prichard sat back down in front of Marti.  “So what’s next?” he said, not really expecting her to answer but ready to move on.  He didn’t want to explain his ideas to her.  Not just then anyway. 

Marti was unprepared for all of this.  It appeared to her that her comment about the feds owning the situation had momentarily left others with the belief that perhaps she, as the federal government representative, had a plan—a perception that couldn’t have been further from the truth.  She was a courier only but she didn’t want to appear weak right now. 

“I’ll get back in touch with NSIR in Washington and see what they’d like to do.” 

This was about as noncommittal as she could be while still saying something that sounded action oriented. 

Prichard said, “That’s fine,” as he stood up, signaling the end to the meeting.  “Please let me know when you’ve got more.  I’ll need input as soon as you have it.”

All Marti could think of was, “Yes, sir.  Where will you be when I get some information?”

“I’ll probably be right here.  If not, please call my cell.  And Marti?”

“Yes?”

“Thanks for your help with this.  This is going to be a trying few days, and I appreciate your support.” 

Prichard had a way of making people feel good about helping him.  He did that very well, whether they actually helped him or not.  And it appeared to work.  The compliment eased some of the discomfort Marti was feeling.

“I’ll be in my office if you need me,” she said.

Walking down the hall to her office, she felt light-headed.  Fear or excitement, perhaps.  Intoxicating to be sure.

CHAPTER 23

 

Driving back to the cabin, I got on the phone to Prichard.  He answered the phone immediately, suggesting to me it was apparent he was expecting the call and understood what I was trying to tell him a short while ago in his office.

“Thanks for calling, Nick.  I assume you have a plan that you didn’t want to share in front of Marti?”

I didn’t exactly have a plan, but I did have a strategy, and that was good enough for the time being.  We needed to get moving and let the pieces fall into place as we went along. 

“Let’s say I’ve got a few ideas.  What’s important right now is that we need to stay ahead of the FBI and local law enforcement.  They’re not going to want us involved.  And if they find out about us, they’ll do everything within their considerable power to shut us down.  So we’re going to have to work under the radar.  Are you okay with that?”

“I guess I’ll have to be, won’t I?” he said with irritation in his voice.  “I’m sure you know that I’m going to have to at least appear to be cooperating with the feds and the locals, don’t you?”

“I wouldn’t expect anything less.”  What I didn’t tell him was that I was counting on it.  The FBI was predictable, if nothing else.  Knowing what they intended to do and when they intended to do it would help me.  Feed the beast and they’d be right where I wanted them to be. 

“All you have to do is say the word.  My men and I are ready to go.  For the time being, the less you know about what that means, the better.  There’re leaks in your organization, and we can’t risk someone finding out what we’re doing.  So in case anyone asks or is paying attention to my whereabouts, I won’t be involved.”

Prichard was going to need to walk a fine line on this one.  He had responsibilities, legal and otherwise, to the corporation that owned The Headlands.  He didn’t need to explain that to me.  All he needed to do was give me the go-ahead and be prepared to fund the effort. 

“You’re going to need information on what’s going on here, from time to time.  How do you propose we do that?”

“I’ll either call you or Marti.  Depends on what I need.  But for now, I have what I need.”

“How’s this going to go down?” Prichard couldn’t help asking.  “We don’t know much right now, and I’m not sure who to trust around here.”

“First things first.  Let me get some assets in place, gather some intel, and then we’ll talk again.  In the meantime, I suggest you do nothing to arouse suspicion.  Keep it business as usual—at least as much as the FBI will let you.”

I’ve worked with vice presidents of these big nuclear stations before.  They’re conservative decision-makers most of the time.  My take on Prichard was that he was no different. He wanted to do things that would provide the least amount of risk to his station.  My being there presented him with a choice:  do nothing proactive and let the feds take over, or keep my team and I in place, whether the FBI knew about us or not. I knew that my being involved would lessen the risk of whatever was going on, though he could only take that on faith.  Hope and luck are generally not a good strategy, and definitely not the way he would choose to run the nuclear power plant.  That was, if he had a choice.

“I’ll do my best,” he said.  Then, almost as an afterthought, he added, “I don’t know if this is important to you, but you made a statement a while back, that it would help if you knew who was behind all this.  I don’t know if this is relevant or not, but the Chinese are trying to get into commercial nuclear power in a big way.  We’ve been sending our people over there to help them and also to learn more about how they run their nuclear program.  It’s better for the US nuclear industry to help them do it right than to ignore them altogether.  But every time we send people over there, we’ve found that they’re corrupting our computers and cell phones.  They would much rather steal our information than ask for it outright.  That’s why I was in Washington when we met.  This is a significant issue for us and one that I wanted to discuss with the Department of State.”

“Are you suggesting corporate espionage might be behind all this?”

“I really don’t know, but there’s big money to be made in nuclear power.  That’s especially true with emerging nuclear states like China.  They need power badly, and I can believe they could see this as the way forward for them.”

“Okay.  Good to know.  Let me think about that.”

Prichard had some decisions to make and I was getting antsy to get going.  I knew what had to be done, even if he didn’t.  As the pensive silence on the phone grew, I knew I needed to prompt him.  He needed to know it was okay to get me involved.  With nobody else around to tell him that, it fell to me.

“Jeff,” I said with compassion as well as a sense of urgency in my voice, “the clock is running.  We have a short time frame and a lot to do.  What I need from you right now is the green light to proceed.”

I heard him take a deep breath, as if thinking of all the ways this could come back to haunt him if he authorized me to proceed, and a number of ways it would if he didn’t.  In the end, I knew he would come around to doing something proactive.  Guys like him are men of action.  Conservative decision makers for the most part, but action oriented nonetheless.  With conviction in his voice, he said, “Go.”

“I’ll do my best for you, sir.”  And with that, I hung up.  Time to get moving. Prichard knew enough to approve my actions, without compelling me to tell him my plan.  As hard as it was going to be for him, the less he knew about what I had in mind, the better for the time being. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Prichard put his phone down.  He was used to spending money to make his plant the showpiece in the industry.  For the last several years he’d done just that in his tenure as the leader of this technological marvel.  Now he was sure he’d just hired the best protection services available.  He didn’t know exactly what would be done or how, but he knew a bit more about Nick than perhaps Nick knew.  When he was in Washington, he’d attended a confidential meeting in which NeXus was discussed.  For all intents and purposes, NeXus was a private firm.  But he’d found out that the government fully supported its efforts with intelligence and equipment.  The real skinny always comes out during one-on-one meetings over dinner or drinks with high-ranking government officials.  It seemed Nick was something of an anomaly in military circles. Seems that Nick had been awarded the Medal of Honor and was currently one of only a handful of living recipients of that honor.  He was also the only one still in the service of his country.  All the other living recipients were in their sixties or seventies. But even more interesting to Prichard was that Nick’s earning the military’s highest award was classified information, which, despite his connections, he was not able to find out much about.  He could only speculate about what Nick had done to earn it, and polite inquiries were immediately rebuffed.  Prichard knew it would be unwise to continue to ask.  But he also knew enough to know that Nick was something special.  And right now, he was very glad to have had Nick’s assurance that he would do his best.

 

CHAPTER 24

 

I met with Pete back at the cabin over a quick sandwich and filled him in on what was going on, including a rundown on the fight in The Tavern and seeing Jansen outside. 

“I had the distinct impression he wanted me to see him.”

“That’s about his style,” Pete observed.  “He always was a bit of hot dog, wasn’t he?”  Pete knew Jansen, too.  “What else do we have?”

“Not much yet.  But the plant’s senior NRC resident is involved and she’s the one who brought us the intel.  I’ve got her keeping track of the FBI and the locals.”

“She?  Is she up to this?” Pete said with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice. 

I chose to ignore the inference for the moment.  “My read is yes.  We’ll see.  We don’t have much to say about it either way.  She has intel about what’s going on and she’s already involved.” 

I’d worked with women operatives before, overseas.  Most of them were locals and, because of that, they were well motivated.  But Marti wasn’t an operative.  She was probably an engineer by trade who’s training was in regulatory enforcement.  I had no clear idea how she would perform under pressure.  Like all people, she’d probably perform consistent with her abilities.  Not knowing what those were, I was willing to give her the benefit of the doubt—for the time being.  I really had no choice.  She was in this and it might be for the best. 

“We have to assume the report has been compromised and that Jansen has it,” I told Pete.

“I assume you left a few things out of the report, as usual?”

“Of course,” I said with a sly smile.  “I don’t want them to know everything I know.”

“Does Prichard know that?”

“No, I didn’t tell him.  Best to leave it at that for now.” 

I usually found a few things that were best not to bring to anyone’s attention.  These were things that were either too extreme to really matter or too sensitive to put down in writing.  All these big plants have a Trojan horse or back door through their security system if you know where to look and if you have the resolve to exploit it.  But you had to know what you were looking for.  And I did.

“Intel we got from Marti indicates the terrorists have knowledge of the dead woman.  So we have an insider, which has been confirmed by the FBI.  Because of that, we need to focus our efforts on the plant and not worry about the external threat to the transmission system, if in fact there is one.” 

Pete was listening as he worked on his computer.  He could multi-task easily enough.

“One more thing,” I continued.  “The dead woman was married to a ventilation system engineer.  We have to assume that the engineer didn’t kill his own wife.  So it’s reasonable to assume the insider killed her, maybe to get to him.”

“That’s risky, isn’t it?” Pete observed.  “It tips their hand.  They couldn’t assume that nobody would find that out.  They can’t be that stupid.”

“We can hope they’re that stupid, but I don’t think so.  That means they’re either reckless and amateurs or they’re confident that it really doesn’t matter.  More likely it means they assumed that by the time anyone found out, it wouldn’t matter anymore.  That points to a short timetable.”

Pete looked up from his computer.  “Agreed.  Based on what we’re seeing so far, something tells me that this could get seriously bad in a hurry.” Then, as an afterthought, he said, “I’m surprised Jansen did that, to tell the truth.  Know what I mean?”

I shoot him a look but moved on.  “I’m sure there’s more to that than we know.  The good news is that we have some time, though not much, to get into this before something happens.  But we need to get moving.”

“What do you have in mind?” asked Pete, ready and anxious to begin.

“I have some ideas, but nothing solid yet.  I need you to get all the intel you can from the sheriffs office, the FBI, wherever.  We’re going to need to know what they know and what they’re planning to do.  Meanwhile, I’m heading south.  I need to talk this over with the Old Man.  It’ll be late by the time I get there.  I’ll probably spend the night and come back early tomorrow.” 

I knew a guy with technical expertise in the operation of nuclear power plants, who I referred to simply as The Old Man.  He wasn’t exactly on the NeXus payroll, but he did unofficial consulting for me from time to time.  He was why I was so well informed about the plant systems and how they worked, though few people knew that or anything about him.   Both the Old Man and I preferred it that way.  Turns out he lived just a few hours south of Willits, on the Central Coast of California.  So it was best to pay him a visit in person, rather than go into any of this over the phone.

“Tell him I said ‘hey,’” Pete said.

“Will do.  I’ll check in with Prichard and Marti later tonight.  Maybe we’ll learn something then.”

“Marti?  I assume that’s the senior resident on site?  Anything else I should know about Marti?” asked Pete, with more than passing curiosity in his voice.

“If there is, you’ll have to find it yourself. I just met her.”  It was a discussion I didn’t want to get into right then.

I picked up the keys to my personal truck.  On a trip like this, I wanted to be comfortable, and the rental car wasn’t going to do.  I had my ride in a parking garage downtown and would have to go pick it up.

“One more thing.  As you pointed out, if Jansen is in town, we know he’s not alone.  He’ll have a team of well-armed and no doubt well-paid guys with him.  We don’t know what kind of talents they have, so keep a low profile.  I don’t want you taking any chances.”

“Roger that.” 

CHAPTER 25

 

THE OLD MAN

 

I liked sports cars.  They were fast and high tech.  I’d owned a few and I still liked them, but my current ride was an F-150 Harley Davidson pickup truck.  It was supercharged, which meant it was fast; and it was a truck, which meant it was roomy inside.  I liked the roominess but appreciated the high performance, even if it wasn’t a sports car.  I’d become something of an adrenaline junky since my time on the teams.  Nothing quite like hanging out of a Black Hawk helicopter in the dead of night, going like a bat out of hell, skimming the tree-tops, fifty feet away from another helo with no running lights on, heading out on a mission.  My truck wasn’t a match for that, but for personal transportation, it wasn’t bad. 

As I drove down the road, I thought about the Old Man.  I knew a lot about tactics, weapons, and how to kill a man.  The Army trained me well and I was very good at all of it.  I wasn’t raised with guns, didn’t play football as a kid, and wasn’t technically oriented.  But I grew up learning how to succeed.  I learned a lot of that from studying traditional Japanese karate for fourteen years.  I’d earned my black belt at the age of sixteen, the youngest you could be to earn a black belt in that style.  There was no breaking boards or theatrical kicks.  There were, however, doing pushups on my knuckles, lots of repetitions, and fighting.  There was no talking in class, so when you got hurt, you learned to just cowboy up and move on.  As it turned out, I had a knack for that. 

However, I didn’t know anything about nuclear power.  I had a bachelor’s degree in criminal science, but I never took a liking to technical disciplines, such as engineering.  What I found, though, was that it wasn’t necessary for me to be a nuclear engineer to be able to evaluate security at nuclear power plants.  Security was security.  Strategy and weapons didn’t change much from one job to the next.  But I had to admit it helped if I knew something about how the station operated so I would know what the security staff was trying to protect.  This was where the Old Man came in.  He was an expert in nuclear power, having worked in the industry for a few decades before he retired.  So from time to time, I’d meet with him when it was necessary to my assignment.  I didn’t advertise that of course, and he preferred it that way.  He liked being retired and resisted many opportunities over the years to contract back to the industry he’d retired from.  However, in his years in the nuclear power industry, he’d developed an expertise that made him invaluable to me.  He had a degree in nuclear technology; held a senior reactor operator license for 20 years, which meant he knew reactor physics, heat transfer and fluid flow, thermo-hydraulics, electrical systems, and how to put it all together to make a highly technical plant work. 

More than just the technical knowledge, he had a familiarity with plants, knew where things were located, what was flowing through the various pipes, and what a plant should sound like.  That kind of expertise comes from a lifetime of being in the plant, not just book learning.

But a lot of people worked in nuclear power and had similar expertise.  What made the Old Man unique was his additional knowledge of station security.  He’d gotten involved in security after 9/11 when nobody else wanted to or even really knew the relevance of it to the nuclear industry.  Each plant had to have someone who could look at the new threat area, and the Old Man got the assignment.  As a result, he ended up working with various federal agencies like FEMA, the NRC, the FBI, and even the National Security Agency.  Being involved meant he had access to information that most others at the stations did not. 

In many aspects, it was a new field, and those who got in on it right away rose quickly to positions of influence.  He‘d participated in risk analysis reviews of nuclear power plants and worked with local agencies to determine risk factors at various stations.  He’d learned how the entire nation’s electrical system was interconnected so a person with sufficient knowledge could find vulnerable points.  He’d experienced this for himself several years ago, when a freak accident was blamed for taking out the electrical grid for the entire Eastern Seaboard.  He’d been on a plane in Boston sitting on the tarmac waiting to take off when the incident occurred, delaying him for several very long hours. The problem supposedly started at a Canadian nuclear plant just across the border on Lake Ontario and then cascaded into the US, causing a disruption to the electrical grid frequency, which in turn caused nearby nuclear stations to trip off line—resulting in more instability and more plants tripping off line.  A domino effect.  Cities went dark and airport traffic was temporarily suspended.  As he sat on the tarmac, he had time to ponder how this could have happened so easily.  Intrigued, he became something of an industry expert in a new field. 

It was years later that he found out the grid disruption had actually been a computer fault.  A subcontractor hired to maintain the system was installing a new program, and one of the mainframes saw it as a virus and started to shut down computers to protect itself, which started a cascade within the national power control grid that cut power to fifty million people.  That information was never made public for fear of spreading panic and giving already inventive computer hackers new ideas. 

The sun had already set behind the coastal mountains when I pulled into the Old Man’s driveway, past the huge rural mailbox that everyone out there had.  It was getting dark, so it was good that I knew where he lived because there weren’t any streetlights.  He lived out in the country on a ranch in the hills behind San Luis Obispo, a small college town a few hours south of San Francisco.  I always liked visiting there when I could.  I wasn’t a cowboy or a farm hand, but I enjoyed the peace and quiet and the smell of the hay fields and animals. 

Sweet smoke was curling from the chimney and a warm glow was coming from the windows as I drove up the long dirt road to the main house just coasting—barely a couple of miles per hour—so I wouldn’t kick up too much dust.  Living in the country meant there was no need for curtains as they only block the view from the inside.  Privacy was obtained by living a good distance away from your neighbors—and protected by Smith and Wesson.

Getting out of the truck, I stretched my legs from the long drive and breathed in the night air filled with the smell of hay and horses.  I walked up onto the wood porch and knocked on the beautiful solid oak door.  From somewhere inside the house, I heard a deep, throaty bark; the kind that indicates something big and nasty lurked on the other side of the door.  I smiled to myself.  For all the technology in the world today, one of the best security systems was still a large dog.  When the door opened, a huge bullmastiff charged through it to see who was making all the racket outside.  As soon as the dog saw and smelled me, his menacing growl turned to a playful, but throaty, woof, to greet an old friend. 

I loved the old dog, but bullmastiffs had a nasty tendency to drool, and this one had long strings of drool hanging out each side of its mouth.  So even if they didn’t bite you, they slobbered on you. 

I grabbed the 110-pound dog by his large, thick neck and shook him back and forth.  “Blackie!  How are you, boy?” 

Blackie made a deep rumbling sound from somewhere in his throat that indicated he enjoyed seeing me again, too.  He put one enormous paw out as if he wanted me to shake it and tilted his head to one side in a playful way to encourage me to rub his ears.

“Nick!  Good to see you, boy!” said the Old Man from the other side of the door.  “Come on in!  Let me get you a towel and wipe some of that spit off your hands.”

“Good to see you, too, Old Man.  How’s it going?” I said as I walked into the house, followed by a very happy Blackie.  That dog’s tail alone could knock holes in a wall. 

“You know I’m not one to complain,” the Old Man said as threw me a towel.  “Come on in.  You want a beer or coffee or something?”

“Coffee would be great, thanks.” 

I followed the Old Man into the comfortable country kitchen.  The timber frame house had huge rooms, lots of wood, lots of windows, and vaulted ceilings.  Not quite a log home, but very rustic, warm, and just about what you’d expect out in the country. I pulled out one of the chairs at the kitchen island and sat down, with Blackie alongside pushing his nose up and down on my leg, indicating he wanted me to rub some part of his body, which I willingly obliged and rubbed his ears.

As the Old Man poured coffee into a huge mug, I said, “You’re looking good for an old guy.  Been on a diet or what?”

The Old Man chuckled. “Not exactly.  It’s all the work around this place.  Man, it never seems to end.  I guess I’m not used to having to do everything for myself.  It’s hell getting old.  My back hurts from doing so many chores.  I’m supposed to be retired, you know?  What’s with that?  But what the hell.  You have to do something with your life, right?” 

He went quiet for a moment, during which time I assumed his thoughts turn to his wife of thirty-seven years.  Jenny passed a couple of years ago just after they retired and moved into this place.  At sixty-three years old, he still looked fit, with a bit of a paunch, but not too bad.  Still had all his hair, though it was significantly grayer and a bit longer than it was just a year ago, which was the last time I’d seen him.

The Old Man put the past aside for the time being.  “What’s going on that has you out at night driving down here to see me, in the middle of February?” 

“Got a problem up at The Headlands power plant,” I said as I sipped the hot, black coffee.  “You been watching the news?”

“Hell no!  I’m retired remember?  I do enjoy watching reruns of The West Wing, though.  Best show ever made.  I have all eight seasons on disc, you know.  Hey, want me to fix you something to eat and we could watch some?  Won’t take but a minute to rustle something up.”

I enjoyed the banter but didn’t have time for this.  I also knew better than to believe the Old Man didn’t know what was going on in the world outside his little piece of heaven.  He was still well connected, and I suspected that he knew much more than he was letting on right now. 

“So, you don’t know what’s going on, eh?” I said, tongue-in-cheek.

He looked at me with a slight smile.  “I didn’t say that.  I just said I don’t watch the news.  Too depressing.  The stock market’s going down again and that just pisses me off.  Not to mention, it’s taking food out of Blackie’s mouth.  And you know how cranky he can get if he doesn’t eat something regularly.” 

Blackie was lying on the floor between the two of us, a bit of drool coming out of his mouth, over huge lips the color of licorice, just happy to be in the same room with us as we talked.

Getting back to the business at hand, I said, “I’ve been up there for a few days doing a security evaluation for the plant.”

“Good for you.  Always good to be gainfully employed,” he said as he pulled out a chair next to me.

 “Yeah, but there are some unusual things going on.  A woman washed up on the beach.  Seems she was an employee at the plant.”

The Old Man looked at me without blinking his eyes. “Yeah, I heard something about that.”

I had a suspicion he knew.  “What you probably didn’t know is that there’s a credible threat against the plant.”

“So?  I imagine they get threats all the time.  Why does this one have your panties in a wad?” 

The Old Man enjoyed picking on me every chance he got.  “In this particular case, they’ve got a mole on the inside.”

The Old Man’s smile vanished.  He leaned back, folded his arms, and said nothing. He knew that threats come and go, but an insider meant someone was serious.  “I assume the fact that you know all this means something is about to happen,” he said.

“So, I’ve got your attention now?”  I couldn’t resist giving him a ration of shit for his glib remarks earlier.  As I drank the hot coffee I gave him a rundown of the last couple of days, including the dead woman, my run-in at the bar, seeing Jansen, and the threat assessment. 

When I was done talking, he asked, “Who knew you were going up there?”

“What are you suggesting?” I asked, leaning forward a bit.

“Well, the timing is odd if you think about it.  Just after you do your look-see, run a drill, and write a report, a threat is made against the station.  Either the timing is just a weird coincidence, or someone was waiting for you to do what they couldn’t do.  And I don’t believe in coincidences quite that much.”

That made sense to me, too.  I didn’t like the implications but saw that the Old Man made a reasonable observation. 

“The only people who knew I was going up there were plant staff—VP, a few guys in security, maybe operations.”

“And didn’t you say that Prichard said the perimeter gates and locks didn’t look messed with?”

“Yeah, and he seemed to know that right away.”

“So whoever killed the woman and pushed her in the drink had knowledge of the security system.  They also had to have a key to get through the gates.  When you put it all together, this looks like a well-choreographed situation.  Much more than an amateur job.”

I sat back and finished off my coffee.  I’d been up a long time already, but I wasn’t feeling sleepy in the least.  “That was my read, too,” I said.

“So what do you need from me if you have all this figured out already?”

“Hey, I’m a long way from having it all figured out.  But it’s my problem now.  Jeff Prichard, the VP, asked me to get involved.  I told him I’d help out but on the down low.  The FBI and the sheriff have the lead, or will soon enough, seeing as how there’s a credible threat out there—and you know how anal those guys can be.”

The Old Man nodded his head.  “Yeah, I’ve had some dealings with the FBI before.”  He looked at me and asked, “Got any assets in place yet?”

“I’ve got a team on the ground just in case.  I got Pete heading them up and doing some intel.”

“Ah, Pete.  How’s he doing these days?”  The Old Man knew a lot about NeXus and the team.

“He’s good.  He said to tell you hello.”

The Old Man nodded his head.  He had a great deal of respect for my guys. 

“Anyway, we just don’t have all the pieces yet,” I continued.  “Thought you might have some insights on all this. A cold read and all.  I figure we don’t have much time now since the dead woman was found.  I’m thinking that’s going to force their hand.  I don’t think having her wash up on the beach was part of their plan.”

“You’re probably right about that,” agreed the Old Man.

“So this all means they’re probably well entrenched and have a plan that’s already in the works.  That leaves us behind the power curve on this.”

The Old Man just listened.

“I figure it’s too late to try to stop them from getting in.  And we don’t know what they’re doing or who they are.  My thinking is that we need to start working on a take-back strategy.  I’m not sure we can stop them from doing what they plan to do, but we can take the plant back from them.  They won’t expect that from anyone other than the FBI.  But I could use your help with it.  If this thing goes down, and if it involves someone within the plant security department, there aren’t a lot of folks left to rely on.”

The Old Man got up to get the coffee pot.  As he poured us some more coffee, he asked, “How you doing these days?”

I knew he was referring to my time on the teams and the injuries I’d sustained, both mental and physical, that resulted in the Medal of Honor.  He wasn’t supposed to know about it, and for the benefit of everyone else, he pretended not to know.  But he did.  He also knew it was one of the reasons I got out of Special Forces.  At the time, I was stressed out, and being distracted while deployed down range was something that you didn’t want.  So for my sake, and the sake of my team, I opted to go into the private sector where I could slow down a bit and sort things out.  And while that was all true, that was the cover story.  As in many areas of Special Forces, things weren’t always what they seemed.  And the fewer people who knew, the better. 

“I’m okay.  I try not to think about it too much.”  I actually still didn’t feel like talking about it but appreciated that the Old Man asked anyway.  Still, I wanted to change the subject.  “We can have that discussion some other time.  Right now, we have business to attend to.”

The Old Man let it go for the time being.  “Okay.  Let’s talk this through.”  He appeared now to be moving into his analytical mode.  “As you know, to really compromise the safety of one of these big nuc plants, you need a few things.  Let’s look at what we’ve got here.  From what you’ve said, we can assume they have someone in security on their side.  That’s not a really big deal unless the person is well placed on the inside and has the knowledge and ability to muck up the works.  We don’t know yet if that’s true or not, so let’s just table that one for now.”

I was petting the beast under the table and processing information as the Old Man continued. 

“They’re quite possibly trying to subvert the husband of the dead woman.  You said he was a containment ventilation engineer?  Let’s assume that’s a key piece of this puzzle.  That would suggest that they probably have a few assets in place already.  And if that’s true, the fact that they do and we don’t puts us at a disadvantage.”  The Old Man leaned back in his chair and looked pensive for a moment.  “It’s February.  I’ll bet they got an outage coming up soon, right?”

I saw where he was going with this.  “As a matter of fact, they do.  It’s in about two weeks.”

“Outages have always been weak spots as far as security goes.  So they may have additional outside help that’s somehow gotten on the inside.” 

“It’s a vulnerability that I noted in my report.”

“I thought you would.”  The Old Man leaned forward. “The third leg of this stool is the control room.  To do really significant damage to the station they need someone actually in the control room.  And this is the piece we’re missing right now.  If they can corrupt a key player in there, we have a big problem.”

He let that hang in the air for a moment.

“This is all a stretch, you know.  It’s improbable to get that many assets in place without someone finding out.  Nonetheless, my suggestion is you call Prichard and see if there’s been anything unusual happen to the crews.  See who called in sick recently, or who might be vulnerable.”

I looked at my watch.  It was approaching 9 p.m.  “I’ll call him in a bit.  So what do you think?  How do you see this playing out?”

The Old Man got up and grabbed a double-stuffed Oreo cookie.  He must have loved those things because he had them every time I visited. 

“As I said, nuc plants are hard to seriously screw up, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.  For the sake of argument we’ll assume the improbable has happened, so they have means and opportunity.  That’s one.  Two is that we know they’re serious, because they’ve already murdered one person.  This takes it out of corporate espionage and puts it more in the terrorism arena.  Not good for us.”

He dipped his cookie in his coffee.

“But if Jansen is around, that means they have mercenaries involved, which means they’re in it for money.  Money is no good to them if they don’t come out alive.  So that means they have an exit strategy.  They want to be around to spend their ill-gotten booty.  And that can work to our advantage.”

That’s what I liked about the Old Man.  He didn’t get too emotional about these things.  He thought things through.

“That exit strategy is going to be their weak point.  If we can figure that out, we’ll know where to look for them and how to stop them.  For example, if they get into containment and damage it enough to cause a problem, they’ll never get out alive themselves.  As they aren’t patriots, I think we can rule that out.”

I thought about that for a minute.  “But if they can get into containment, don’t we have to assume that they have already defeated the security staff?  And wouldn’t that mean that they could place delayed charges and still get out again?”

“Good point.  That’s possible.  But there are three barriers between the nuclear fuel and the outside world:  the fuel cladding, the reactor coolant system, and containment itself.  You tell me—can they carry enough explosives to damage all three systems?”

I shook my head slowly.  “Based on what you’ve told me before about the components in containment, I’d say that’s unlikely.  Even with military-grade explosives, it’d be hard to carry enough to damage all three, unless you had a lot of guys humping a lot of C-4, timers, and detonators.  That’s a lot of gear.”

The Old Man dunked another cookie, having devoured the first in a single bite. 

“So what do you see as the weak link in all this?” I asked him.

“Well, it’s possible their goal is not to kill a lot of people by releasing massive amounts of radiation.  Maybe they just want to gum things up a bit.  You know, do enough damage to the plant that it’s economically unfeasible to fix it and start it back up.  This kind of scenario could cause the plant to go bankrupt.  If they do that, they’ll show all nuclear plants to be vulnerable to attack.  Pro-safety folks would have a field day.”

“Who’d stand to gain from that?”

“The anti-nukes, for one.  They’re all over the place and remarkably well organized, but this looks too detailed and well funded for them to be involved.  They’re serious about their cause, but generally aren’t this militant.” 

He gobbled down another cookie, which where starting to look pretty good to me, too.  I hadn’t eaten in awhile.

He went on.  “We did some studies on this a few years back.  Believe it or not, it’s possible that a country with an emerging nuclear industry might stand to gain from it.  If the US decided to back off nuclear power, or if one or two large plants have to shut down, it might free up parts—or at least make them a lot more affordable to overseas countries that would rather buy them used than new.  If a US plant had to shut down because of a terrorist event, they’d likely sell their equipment off to recoup some of their investment.”

It was my turn for a cookie.  Only I liked milk with mine.  I walked over to the cabinet to get a glass and then to the fridge for some ice-cold milk.

“That fits with something Prichard told me this morning.  He said the Chinese have been trying to hack their way into The Headland’s LAN for information.  It’s possible they’re trying to jump-start their commercial nuclear program by stealing or plagiarizing whatever they can get hold of from someone else.”

The Old Man looked at me and squinted.  “That’s not really news to you, now is it?”

As I wolfed down my first cookie and went to get another one, I realized just how hungry I was.  “You know that’s still heavily classified, right?  It’s not a subject I’m going to discuss.” 

I knew he wanted to talk about it for a variety of reasons.  And I would have loved to be able to discuss it with him, but both he and I knew it wasn’t going to happen.  I moved on. 

“Whatever their long-term goal might be, I think we need to assume they have a short-term goal of breaching the plant and causing damage.  How much damage, we don’t know.  But I’m assuming any damage to a nuclear plant presents some risk of releasing nuclear materials.”

“Unfortunately, you’re right,” the Old Man said, shaking his head.  Despite his casual manner, this was the kind of scenario that no doubt kept him up at night. And both he and I knew it. 

I looked at my watch again.  It was 9:23 p.m.  “Before it gets too late, let me call Prichard and see what’s going on.  I can ask him about the status of the operators, too.”

“No problem.  I’m going to take Blackie out for a pee.”

Blackie heard his name and the word ‘pee’ in the same sentence, jumped up, and ran for the door, his nails clawing at the hardwood floor trying to gain some purchase but failing, his muscular legs splaying as he slid into the wall.

CHAPTER 26

 

I dialed the number for Prichard, who picked up on the second ring.

“I’ve been waiting for your call,” he said.  I detected some excitement in his voice.  “I have some news.  Are you in a place where you can talk?”

I was sitting alone in the Old Man’s kitchen.  It was about as secure as it was gonna get.  “Go ahead.”

“We weren’t able to get hold of Brenda William’s husband, Bob.  He’s been off work since he got news of his wife.  He’s probably devastated and holed up somewhere with his family shielding him from calls and so forth.  But I did find out what he’s working on.  Turns out he’s working on a modification to the containment ventilation system.”

“What exactly does that mean?”  I asked.

“It means he has some test equipment in place that can remotely open the containment vent system to the outside.  It’s part of his design modification process.”

I felt my brow furrowing.  This made sense; especially in light of the discussion I’d just had with the Old Man.  If you’re going to try to damage a nuclear plant for terrorism purposes, you need to be able to release contamination from the massive containment dome.  The ventilation system is designed to fail-safe and have all the dampers close on loss of power.  So the terrorists needed to have a way to override the fail-safe signals and open the dampers, which was generally the worst situation you could have.  Of course, they’d also need a way to get inside containment and cause a release of fission products.  I had to assume that was where Jansen came in.  And that’s where the NeXus report came in.  My report provided insights on just how to do that.  The only good news was that knowing what the report contained, I was in a good position to anticipate Jansen’s moves, intercede, and prevent him from succeeding.  But something told me this wouldn’t be that easy.  Whoever put all this together knew what they were doing and had already demonstrated that they’re willing to do most anything to achieve their goal.  And they knew I was in town.  So they must have planned for that, too.

“Okay. Keep trying to get in touch with Williams and see what he knows about all of this, but I suspect you won’t have much luck.  In any event, we need to assume the worst and that he’s already told them whatever they need to know. Based on the fact that his wife has been dead now for some time, they’ve had several days to get that information from him.”

“We’ll keep working on trying to find him,” Prichard assured me.  “The entire plant staff is shaken up by Brenda’s death.  More than that, there are rumors about how she’d died.  It’s ugly around here.”

“I imagine.  By the way, don’t you have another engineer on site who’s good with the containment vent system?  In other words, doesn’t Williams have a backup or a partner?  We may need his expertise.”

“He has a supervisor, though I don’t know how much he knows.  Our best bet is the Unit 2 ventilation system engineer.  Unit 2 is a mirror image of Unit 1, so he should know how it all works.  By the way, where are you right now?”

“I’m meeting with the Old Man.”

“Really?  Is this the same guy I’m thinking of?”

“Yup.”

“Well now, that’s interesting.  I’m sure you know I worked with him quite a few years ago.  I didn’t know that he was a resource to you.  It makes sense, though, when I think about it.  That helps explain how you seem to know so much about my power plant.”

“Let’s keep that to ourselves, okay?” I said.  “He’s a valuable resource that, hopefully, the bad guys don’t know about.  What we have going for us is that we’re smarter than they are when it comes to understanding the plant and how it works.  Let’s just keep it that way.”

Prichard was a smart guy and was getting used to working with me, and not having all the information he’d like to have.  As I’d hoped, he appeared to pick up on the fact that I’d mentioned the Old Man to him for a reason.  He handled the revelation about the Old Man well.  All he said was, “Okay”.

“I’ll be back in the morning,” I continued.  “We’re working on some things here right now.  In the meantime, see if you can find out if there’s anything unusual going on with the operations staff.  Anyone call in sick or anything else that’s out of the ordinary.”

Prichard went quiet for a moment, as if processing the ramifications.  “I’ll look.  I’ll let you know when I have something.”

“Okay.  Thanks.  We’ll talk later.”  And with that, I hung up.  I immediately dialed the number for Marti that I had pre-programmed into my phone. 

 

CHAPTER 27

 

Marti had been nervous since she brought the news of the threat back to the site VP and Nick.  Her supervisors in Washington had to bring her in on this because she was the senior resident on site.  As such, it was her responsibility.  More than just that, though, she knew the plant and she’d established relationships with people on site.  She was on the inside.  And quite honestly, none of her supervisors had much real experience dealing with something of this magnitude or seriousness.  But the NRC was steeped in tradition, and most comfortable when there were clear lines of authority.  Most of the senior leadership were men with years of experience both in the field and with the workings of Washington politics.  Because of this they all believed they had, or should have had, a say in what was going on. 

For the time being, all Marti could do was listen and obey. She’d come up through the ranks quickly.  Being a graduate of the Naval Academy earned her points with the NRC leadership, many of whom were ring knockers—so called because of the Academy ring they wore that banged on tables occasionally.  Like all young ensigns, she’d been assigned to a ship immediately after her graduation.  And, like all women in the Navy, she was not allowed to serve aboard most warships or any submarine.  So she’d been assigned duty on an aircraft carrier as a section leader in a maintenance department.  It wasn’t like she knew anything about the maintenance of a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, but the Navy put officers in positions of leadership regardless, and expected them to learn.  That’s just the way it worked. 

She’d been young and attractive, and that caused the men on the ship to notice her.  Certainly the men in her division had.  However, she’d focused on doing her job well and on learning how the equipment in her area of responsibility worked. She’d listened to the Chief Petty Officers in her division and what they had to say about the jobs they were being asked to do.  In some cases she’d offered suggestions on how things could be done better, trying hard not to appear to be a micro-manager, but wanting to get involved none-the-less.  She’d also avoided overreacting to the occasional off-color jokes the men would make, knowing that sailors were crude and lewd by nature.  She knew some of it was hazing and she’d put up with that, but she’d been careful not to let them cross the line.  She maintained a professional attitude, which some considered aloof, but eventually won over her department and most of her supervisors with her ability and willingness to learn her job and how the ship worked.

After a year aboard the carrier she’d been selected for the challenging Navy Nuclear Power School in Orlando, Florida, the premiere technical program in the Navy.  Getting into it was a feather in her cap.  Once there she’d applied herself to her studies.  With a failure rate of about sixty percent, just being able to get through the program was noteworthy.  After six months in the classroom and another six months in a prototype where she’d learned by doing on an exact replica of a nuclear engineering compartment, she’d qualified as an Engineering Officer Of the Watch, which would allow her to oversee the running of the nuclear plant aboard a ship. 

The Navy liked having women in the service, despite some of the rhetoric the brass spouted in the newspapers and in Congress.  It was easier to win over the naysayers who controlled their budgets if they could show how diversified the Navy was.  So they looked for promising young female ensigns and Lieutenant JGs who could be educated and promoted.  It was also easier to keep the women on shore and in school rather than sending them to sea.  So after Marti qualified in the Navy’s nuclear program, she was sent back to the Naval Academy to get her MBA, which she hadn’t objected to. 

Marti was, in fact, a talented and quick study who realized that her real career path might lie outside the military.  So after much soul-searching one night, and because of her newfound familiarity with nuclear power, she’d opted to get out of the Navy and apply for a position in the NRC.  She was hired almost immediately because, it too had an affirmative action program and looked for bright young women to hire.  As it turned out, her years of military service counted toward time in service with the NRC because both were federal jobs.  That translated to better pay, but what it really gave her was seniority, which put her ahead of many of her peers when seeking career-enhancing positions within the government sector. 

Because she was single and unattached, she chose to do field work, which she reasoned was her best career path.  That’s what led her to put in for one of the two jobs of resident inspector at a nuclear power plant.  She was lucky in being assigned to The Headlands, which many considered the flagship plant in the industry.  Working there would provide her with visibility—as if she needed any more.  But making a name for herself at a prestigious and well-run facility would remove any lingering doubts as to her real qualifications.  In a short time, she’d done there what she’d done on the carrier, winning over the plant staff with her knowledge and willingness to roll up her sleeves and get out in the plant.  When the senior resident position came open, she’d been an easy choice for the assignment. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Even though she was expecting my call, Marti sounded startled when she picked up.  “Hello?” she said.

“Hi, Marti.  It’s Nick.”  I considered whether to make small talk or get right to the point.  I opted for the direct approach.  “What have you been able to find out from the FBI or the sheriff?”

With what I’d interpreted as a slight irritation in her tone, she said, “I found out that I’m supposed to cooperate with you.  I made a phone call to the deputy director at NSIR in Washington, to see how much I should share with you.  I was told you were cleared for any information I have pertaining to this situation.  I was told point blank to cooperate with you completely.  But then, I suppose you already knew that.” 

Good, I thought to myself.  She’s thorough.  “I knew that if you were any good, you’d check on me and that you needed to hear it from someone other than me.”

“I assume you’ll fill me in completely on what is going on?” she asked frostily.  “Quid pro quo?”

“I’ll be happy to tell you whatever I learn—later.  Right now, I’m still putting the pieces together.  And to do that, I need to know what’s going on with law enforcement.”  She could be pissed all she wanted—later.  Right now, I needed information, I was tired, and I didn’t feel much like negotiating with her.  I knew she wasn’t going to like any of this, but it would be in her best interests all the way around if, for the time being, she would simply cooperate as instructed.  I’d like her to see it that way for herself.  If she didn’t, I could bring some pressure to bear, though I’d rather avoid that if possible.

“I’ll help you out,” she conceded.  “But before this is all over, you’re going to owe me some explanations.  I don’t like being kept in the dark.”

“I can assure you, by the time this is all over, you’ll know more than you expect,” I said with a certain amount of finality in my voice.

“Okay.  The fibbies are tight-lipped, as you might suspect.  I checked with the regional headquarters guys out here on the west coast, in Los Angeles.  They’re agitated because national FBI headquarters is taking the lead.  So, the west coast guys know what they’ve been told but little else.  At least, nothing they’re sharing with me.”

“That’s not altogether unexpected,” I said.  “What else ya got?”

“The sheriff is another thing altogether.  The FBI apparently read him in.  He’s not at all happy about a threat of this magnitude in his backyard.  First a murder, and now this.  This is a small community and he believes he has local jurisdiction, regardless of what the FBI is telling him.  I know the guy from a few public meetings I’ve been involved in,” Marti said.  “He isn’t all that supportive of nuclear power, but he was elected, so he needs to go along with his constituency, who, unfortunately for him, are very much in favor of the nuclear power plant.  It adds a tremendous amount of money to the tax base in this community.  It’s money they wouldn’t otherwise have.  But supportive or not, I’m not sure how well equipped he and his staff are to deal with this.”

The same thoughts had crossed my mind when I first met the sheriff at a meet and greet Prichard had for me when I first hired on.  “He may look a bit like a hick,” I said, “’and he may not have a lot of experience with this kind of thing, but he’s probably better informed on what’s going on right now than you are.  He was involved when the station did its analysis last year as part of the governments effort to evaluate national critical infrastructure activities.  So he knows what can happen.”

Marti asked, “What does that mean?”

“That means he helped develop defensive and take-back strategies in the event someone was to take over the plant. The sheriff has also been involved with the Coast Guard to make sure there is a restricted area one mile off shore.” 

Marti was quiet, which either meant she already knew all this or that she was surprised that I knew it.  Then her voice dropped a few decibels. “I wasn’t around when they did their critical asset protection studies last year, but I was briefed on the results.  What you are talking about is confidential information.  How the hell do you know so much?   And should we be talking about this over an open line?”

“For the sake of brevity, and to expedite things right now, yes,” I told her.  “But I want you to stay near your office on the plant site.  We may need more information, and you’ll have an easier time getting that over your secure phone.  I’m sure FBI and NRC headquarters would prefer you communicate with them on your encrypted phone.  You know how to use it, right?”

I could tell Marti resented at the dig.  “It’s not exactly like picking up a cell phone and dialing a number, but I’ve done it before.  So yes, I’m qualified on how to use our secure equipment!”

“Good.  As for the sheriff, he’s probably put his SWAT team on alert and is dusting off their take-back strategy.  Your job is to make sure they don’t pull a John Wayne and come charging onto the site until we know more.  We don’t want to spook the bad guys until we know what we are dealing with.  Can you do that?”

“I’ll do my best.  Is there anything else?” she says with little warmth in her tone.

I could tell I’d pissed her off.  She didn’t know me and didn’t know the full scope of what was going on.  Normally, I wouldn’t care, but in this case, she was an inadvertent participant and not a trained operative.  I didn’t know exactly what her role was going to be, but whatever it was, it would be better to have her on my side than not. 

“Look,” I said, softening the tone in my voice.  “I know this is unusual for you.  But you’re doing a good job.  Just hang in there and stay collected.  If you need anything, let me know. I’ve got some stuff to do.  I’ll call you tomorrow.” 

She apparently responded well to my change in demeanor.  “Wait a minute,” she said, suddenly sounding cooperative.  “If you’re going to call me, let me give you my home and personal cell numbers, just in case.”

“I’ve already got them.”  Without waiting for a response, I terminated the call. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Marti put down her phone.  She admitted to herself that being told what to do by this ‘contractor’ annoyed her, but she was also intrigued and a bit excited.  She breathed out and instinctively looked around her.  She didn’t expect to see anything, but her level of paranoia was increasing. 

CHAPTER 28

 

THURSDAY MORNING

 

THE OLD MAN’S HOUSE

 

I stayed overnight at the Old Man’s house, and we talked long into the night about ideas, strategies, problems, and solutions.  Neither of us knew what form the threat would take, or what exactly the terrorists had in mind, so we could only conceptualize defensive strategies.

“If they have a man or maybe two on the inside, especially if it’s a security person, maybe we should have someone of our own inside.”

The Old Man smiled and nodded.  “I agree.  But we have to assume they’ve got eyes on the inside and would see you coming a mile away.  They’ll be prepared for that.” 

I let the beginnings of a grin cross my own face.

“Let me guess—this has something to do with information you left out of your report.  I assume you looked at potential ways into the plant from the outside and haven’t told anyone of the really ridiculous ways in?”

“You’ve got that right.  I noted all of them in my report, except one.  It was just too crazy to consider and too hard to breach the plant that way, so I left it out.”

“Well if it’s that crazy, then nobody else will be looking for it either.  Lay it out for me.”

I explained my idea for getting into the plant, after which the Old Man immediately said,  “Can’t be done.  Not to mention, it’s too dangerous to even try.  It’s certainly never been done before.  There’d be no reason for anyone to have tried it.”  He paused for a minute, looking down, just shaking his head slowly from side to side.  Then he looked up at me and said, “And for that very reason, it’s probably the only thing that’ll work.” 

“That was my thinking.  I’m counting on them not anticipating it.”

The Old Man gave me a piercing look and said, “Well, you don’t have to worry about that.  But if this is going to work, you’re going to need some help.  You’re going to need someone along who knows the plant and the details of the systems you’re planning to bypass.”

I knew what was coming.  “No!  Absolutely not!  You’re too old for this shit.  You’re retired for God’s sake!  Besides, it’s not your problem.”  I got up from my chair in the kitchen and walked into the family room.  I knew the Old Man had the skill and knowledge I needed.  That’s why I was here talking with him.  But taking him with me was out of the question.  I couldn’t—wouldn’t—risk it. 

Looking at him, I knew that the Old Man’s age and demeanor belied his actual ability.  He was an instructor in Shotokan karate and trained regularly, so he was in pretty good shape—for a man his age.  But I didn’t want to put him, or this mission, in jeopardy.  And having him come along would add a number of variables to the equation. 

The Old Man followed me into the family room.  “You know the feds are only going to muck up the works.  They have their protocols to adhere to and will be coming through the front door soon.”

I sat down heavily in a large, overstuffed leather chair.  If you let them, these chairs would suck the life force right out of you, they were that comfortable.  Perhaps that’s what softened me up a bit.

“That may be, but I can’t take you along and be responsible for what might happen to you.” 

The Old Man sat down on the couch and leaned back.  He had a peaceful look on his face. 

“Look,” he said calmly.  “We can play this little game for a while, but quite honestly we don’t have the time.  You know it and I know it.  You need to get back to the plant.  You, more than most, know how serious this is or can be.  We have solid intel and now we have a plan.  We just need to find two guys who are aggressive enough to do this.”

I just sat there listening.  Damn it!  He could tell I was having the argument in my head.  “You mean stupid enough to do it, don’t you?”

He decided to truncate the discussion.  “So how long are you going to take before you tell me what we both know you’ve already decided to do?”

I looked at Blackie and sighed.  I knew the Old Man was right.  He could help me; and with him along, the odds of success would go up.  It was risky, but I didn’t have a lot of options.  I didn’t have enough knowledge of the plant to make this work on my own. 

“You know there is a fine line between aggressive and stupid.  And I think your idea to come along has crossed that line,” I finally said.

I watched as the Old Man looked around the empty house.  I could almost feel his heartache.  He missed his wife.  If she were here now, I was sure he wouldn’t be volunteering for this.  He knew the risks, but I knew he wanted to protect what little he had left.

“So what’s it going to be?” he asked.

I looked him in the eye and gave him the slightest nod.  He didn’t smile but had the look of a man with grim determination.  I took comfort in that, at least.  This wasn’t going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination, so having someone along beside me who had some confidence in the plan struck me as a good idea.  Or at least that’s what I told myself. 

“I’ve got to get some shut-eye.  I assume I can use one of the spare rooms?”

“You know where they all are.  Help yourself.”

I trudged off to find a bedroom, weighed down by the decision I’d just made.  I didn’t want to bring the Old Man along. It was just simply a bad idea on a number of levels, but what choice did I have?  It was a Hobson’s choice.  It was just after midnight and I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

The next morning, after a good, although brief night’s sleep, I stood on the porch as the sun began its climb over the hills to the east.  I rubbed Blackie’s ears and shook the Old Man’s hand good-bye. 

As I headed over to my truck, I called back, “Get up there as soon as you can.  Call me when you get close.  You have my number.” 

“Let me find someone to watch Blackie, and I’ll get on the road.  I’ll meet you as arranged.” 

With that, I climbed into my truck.  The Old Man was standing on the porch holding a steaming cup of coffee, with Blackie at his side.  He was looking at me with enough resolve to give me confidence in my decision to bring him along.  The decision had been made and I needed to move on from it.  I put the truck in gear and pulled away. 

I loved the early morning.  Cool and clear, it represented a promise of better things to come.  I’d always been a morning person.  As tired as I was, I always felt better in the morning than in the evening.  I drove off the Old Man’s ranch with a lot on my mind.  A glance in the rearview mirror showed him standing on the porch watching me drive away.  Blackie was sitting alongside his master, with a stoic look on his face, no doubt wondering where I was going without him and when I might be coming back—a good question.  Something about the scene was a bit melancholy, but it was morning, after all, so I turned on the radio and headed north through the hay fields and oak-studded hills.

CHAPTER 29

 

As I drove back to The Headlands, I was lost in thought.  I had many of the pieces already put together, and what I knew, I didn’t like.  I knew the people involved were capable of murder—they’d already demonstrated that.  They apparently had money to spread around because they’d already corrupted at least one plant employee.  I knew Jansen was involved and I knew better than anybody what that meant.  He had the look of a mercenary.  A capable one, and no doubt very expensive, but hired help just the same.  When money was your only motivation, there was usually a line you wouldn’t cross.  But I wasn’t sure his employers felt that way, too.  That thought gave me pause.  I didn’t know how far they’d go with this—more accurately, how far they’d make Jansen go with this—but I had a pretty good idea.

The threat itself didn’t reveal too much about the plan though it gave me some insight into the people involved. It indicated a two-pronged approach by taking out the transmission lines and then the plant itself.  And whoever they are, they wanted us to think they’re al-Qaida.  It was a smoke screen, a diversion.  But because Jansen was involved, I knew it wasn’t a Muslim terrorist cell. That left a group or a person with a grievance—or someone who stood to make a lot of money.  As I drove I tried to think of who would stand to gain from all this?  The point of terrorism was to instill fear.  I knew that from my years in Special Forces.  I saw it in many of the countries I’d been sent to.  The powerful ruled by fear.  They planted fear in those who opposed them, threatening either the victim or their families with a sure and horrible death if they didn’t do as they were told.  That allowed them to control commerce, trade, communications, and even religion.  But the US was a nation of laws—and a lot of folks with guns.  There were no feudal lords in California who would benefit from this—although some might think they were. 

This left me with few possibilities.  One was to assume that this was a play by a rich and powerful coalition of Hollywood money and local pro-safety groups, organized to shut down nuclear power or just get headlines.  A lot of people who lived here had a belief that they were somehow different from folks in other parts of the country.  There was an entitlement mentality as though they were entitled to do it differently in The Republic of California.  These people had morals, skewed though they may be.  If these people were behind it, I could at least understand their motives, if not agree with them. 

The second possibility was much simpler and much more sinister.  Money.  Someone could be manipulating the electric industry for monetary gain.  Such people had no conscience.   I didn’t think the Hollywood types would stoop to murder, even as much as they didn’t agree with nuclear power.  So that left the people who were in it for greed.  It made sense, if I applied the theory of Occam’s razor, though it didn’t get me any closer to discovering their identity.

The third possibility was the Old Man’s theory of a foreign country that wanted parts to support its own burgeoning nuclear industry.  That was a scary thought.  A foreign country would have almost unlimited resources to pull this off, knowing it would be very hard to draw a line of culpability back to a responsible party. 

Regardless of who was specifically behind this, I was convinced that greed in one form or another was the driving force.  In some regards, that made it easier for me.  I learned in the military that an enemy who believed he was right made a determined and dangerous adversary.  So if the people behind this were in it simply for money, then I had a better than even chance to beat them. 

Driving up the highway with the window down, I reflected on how this job had changed from just consulting on the security readiness at The Headlands to figuring out who was behind this threat and stopping it, or at least helping the plant recover from it.  Of course the FBI no doubt thought they had a handle on it, as did the sheriff.  Typical, I thought to myself, of most government organizations.  They’d spend a great deal of their time up front setting up an integrated command system, bringing in mobile trucks and satellite receivers, tents for lunches and meetings, and portable toilets for the masses that were sure to follow.  And they’d only do that after something actually happened.  I, on the other hand, couldn’t wait for all that, or for their permission to get involved.  Too many layers to work through.  I was used to working on my own or with a small team.  I frequently operated with limited information, short time lines, and usually in the world’s most disagreeable environments.  Unfortunately, this situation certainly met most of those conditions. 

While I knew this kind of thing could happen in my line of work, I wasn’t sure I was prepared to do this again.  I was still carrying a lot of baggage from previous missions.  And now I’d gotten the Old Man involved.  This kind of self-doubt wasn’t good, and I knew in my heart of hearts it would have to go away.  I couldn’t do what I needed to do otherwise.  Despite the early hour, I suddenly felt the need for a beer.  It was a good thing for me it was so early or I might have take the next exit and looked for an ice-cold one.

As the day heated up, so did I.  With the radio blaring because of the noise from the open window, my mind drifted back to Marti, which provided a nice distraction.  It’d been a long time since I’d looked at a woman with more than just a passing glance or a hormonal stare.  I’d known some women in the last few years, but I’d never found the time to get serious with one.  With Marti, though, I felt an attraction to her on another level, and I couldn’t tell if that was disturbing or exciting me.  I wasn’t looking for a relationship, but isn’t that how it happens . . . when you least expect it? 

I told myself I didn’t want to be distracted right now, but I couldn’t help feeling what I felt.  As the day went on, I found I enjoyed thinking about her, as the miles melted away.  I sensed there was something there that she felt, too, even though we’d only just met—and under bizarre circumstances, to be sure.  But I realized I had to compartmentalize my feelings, whatever they were, to be revisited later, if time and conditions permitted.  Still, I enjoyed the rush and the slight tightening in my chest that I felt as I raced northward toward whatever awaited me.

 

CHAPTER 30

 

I pulled up to the safe house in the woods, as a soft light filtered through the trees.  There was the ubiquitous hot tub out back, but I knew I wouldn’t be spending any time in it.  My Wa ended when I went inside and saw Pete had the inside of the cabin looking like a war-room, with his gear spread out on the kitchen table, and maps and other documents laid out on one of the beds.  On the floor next to the table was a cooler with bottles of beer inside.  We could only work for so long without having a beer.

“Hey, man,” said Pete as he tossed me a much-appreciated beer. 

“Thanks,” I said, and then drained half the bottle.  “Damn that tastes good!  Any problems with the locals?  Anybody looking for us out here?”

While drinking beer is not unusual, I could tell Pete took notice of the way I’d done it.  He was a good friend and though he chose to say nothing about it at the moment, he looked at the bottle of beer instead of at me as if it presented a danger to me.  Maybe it did but I appreciated that he didn’t say anything about it just then.  Instead, he looked back at his computer.

“Locals?  No problems.  Nothing I’ve noticed, anyway.  I scout the area occasionally, just to see if we’re missing something.  It’s a quiet area.  I think we’re secure here.”

“Good.  We got any food around this place?  I’m hungry.  Let me get something to eat and I’ll brief you on my visit with the Old Man.”

“Sounds good.  There’s some chow in the cabinet to the right of the fridge.  While you’re doing that, I got some stuff for you, too.  I got some intel on Jansen.” 

As I took another long draw on my beer and start rooting around for something to eat, Pete filled me in. 

“I was able to find a file on him—the kind of stuff that would make some people take notice, know what I mean?  It says he left the military a while ago, under a cloud of suspicion.  Says he was asked to retire or face a dishonorable discharge.  He opted for the former.  He got crosswise of some of the higher-ups when he started questioning their decisions.  According to his file, it wasn’t the first time it had happened.  Apparently he’d been a troublemaker for quite some time.  But you know the Army.  So long as you’re aggressive, keep your hair high and tight, and your weapon clean, they look the other way.  I guess he finally pushed them over the edge though. They gave him a general discharge.  Not quite honorable, but not dishonorable either.”

“Good work,” I said.  “So that file is out there for others to find?”

“Actually, it wasn’t easy to find.  But if you know where to look, as I do, you can find it.  It’s not a very flattering picture of the guy.”

“Yeah.  Isn’t that something?  Do we have intel on his team or his employer?”

Pete replied, “That’s where it gets a bit tougher.  I was able to put a trace on his file and found some inquiries that were made about him.  This stuff is buried pretty deep.  Someone hacked the military databases to get to it, and that’s not easy to do.  I wasn’t able to trace it back completely, but I did find some cyber traffic that points to Atlanta.”

“Atlanta, huh?  What else you got?” I asked as I drained my beer and reached for another.  I noticed that Pete looked at me out of the corner of his eye.

“I got a line on the two lame-ass incompetents who jumped you in the bar.  Hospital records are significantly easier to hack into.  Seems you really did a number on the one guy you hit in the face.  He needed some major facial reconstruction, so they sent him to San Francisco for a specialist.  He’s likely to be eating out of a straw for quite awhile.  The other asshole has several broken bones but also some internal organ damage.  They’re both down for the count.”

I just nodded as I looked for some food in the kitchen cabinets with one hand, holding on to my beer with the other.

“Because they were admitted to a hospital, they left a paper trail that a blind man could follow.”

“That was a bit careless, don’t you think?”

“Absolutely,” Pete said with a grin.  “They’re both ‘consultants’ working for a company called Waxman Industries.”

“I guess their consulting days are over.  And where would this Waxman Industries be located?”

“Rolling in the high cotton in Georgia.”

“Atlanta?  Why am I not surprised by any of this?”

“Yeah, I know.  The chickens have come back to roost, it seems.  And it appears Waxman Industries has ties to China.”

I drained my second beer quickly, and opened a third.

“You okay, boss?” Pete asked.  “You seem a bit distracted.”

“Not now, okay?  What else we got?”

Pete let my brusque response go.  “I was able to hack the local FBI’s server.  I figured I couldn’t get into the national one, so I used the regional office as a back door.”

“And . . .?”

“As you might suspect, it looks like they’re planning a full-scale intervention.  They’re mobilizing people and gear and heading out this way.  Should be arriving in San Francisco Saturday.  Some advance work is going on between the local fibbies and the sheriff.  And they’re sending some folks up from LA.  Should be here tomorrow.”

“Okay.  When you get a chance, see if you can get into the sheriff’s knickers and see what their take-back strategy looks like.  That could be useful to us.”

“Wouldn’t it just be easier to ask the plant for that?” Pete asked, as I washed down a forkful of leftover mac and cheese with a long draw on my third beer.

“We have to assume site security has been compromised, so anything we ask for would likely be compromised as well.  At this point, I have no reason to believe the sheriff or anyone on his staff has been turned.  But again, I don’t want to tip our hand just yet.”

“Got it.  I should have something later today.”

“What about our team?” I asked.  “You got the boys holed up somewhere nearby?”

“I moved them to Ukiah, ‘bout 20 miles from here. Close enough to get over here quickly, but I didn’t want ‘em in Willits drawing attention to themselves or us.  Mendocino—same thing.”

“Good.”

Pete looked up.  “So what do you make of all this?  Is it what we think it is?”

“My read is that it’s someone who might benefit from a US nuclear meltdown.  Someone looking to buy parts on the cheap.  China perhaps.”

“Copy that.  So what’s the plan?”

I threw the now empty mac and cheese container in the wastebasket, my fork in the sink, took my beer and sat down next to Pete.  I went over the discussions I’d had with the Old Man.  Pete sat stone-faced and just listened as I laid out the plan to get into the plant. 

“You are one crazy sonofabitch—you know that, right?” he said after hearing the plan. 

I looked at him and smiled slightly.  “And your point is . . .?”

Pete smiled too.  “When do we go?”

“Tomorrow night.  We’ll use the midnight shift change to cover our approach.  You and I’ll head onto the site from the access road.  I got a spot picked out just before the fence where you can let me out unobserved.  Get the team in place and we should be good to go,” I said.  “Meantime, I’m going to get some shut-eye.  It’s going to be a long night.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Pete looking at me as I walked toward a bedroom.  He was a good man and I could tell he was worried about me.  We’d seen some hard times together, and we knew each other’s moods, likes and dislikes, and most importantly, each other’s frame of mind.  In all the years I’d known him, he’d never let me down.  Considering what we’d been through, that’s saying something.  Stretching out on a bed, I let my mind wander back to a day several years ago.  I closed my eyes and dropped off into an uneasy sleep.

CHAPTER 31

 

FRIDAY

 

THE HEADLANDS NUCLEAR POWER PLANT CONTROL ROOM

 

Dave Street woke up at 4:40 p.m, glad it was Friday and his workweek was almost over.  He never felt well rested when working graveyards.  Humans just weren’t supposed to work at night and sleep during the day, and he fit that profile well.  His circadian rhythm lent itself to being diurnal, rather than nocturnal.  The good news was that he only had to do it for three or four nights in a row, depending on where in the five-week work cycle he was.  Today wasn’t even his night to take the watch, as he’d already done his three-night stretch.  But he had to cover for a guy who’d called in sick.  Even though he was management, at least he got overtime for working tonight—something most guys in management didn’t get.   It was one of the few perks of being a shift-worker.

He had about an hour to shower and shave, grab a bite to eat, and get out to the plant by 6:30 p.m.  He liked to get there at least a half hour before the start of his 7 p.m. shift and let the off-going shift manager get out a bit early.  In turn, the on-coming shift manager would hopefully relieve him a bit early, too.  It was still a twelve-hour shift, but it always felt good to go home early. 

Dave dragged himself out of bed and into the bathroom to get cleaned up.  A hot shower always felt good, but he didn’t linger tonight.  Too much hot water zapped his energy and made him even groggier than usual.  Tired and unsteady wasn’t something he wanted to be when overseeing the operation of a five-billion-dollar nuclear power plant.  Dave took his job seriously; despite the long hours of working all night, he enjoyed the challenge it provided him.  Not demanding from the aspect of being a hard job to figure out, but from knowing how it all worked and tweaking the two massive 1,200-megawatt electric Westinghouse turbines to squeeze every bit of juice he could out of them.  His pay was the same regardless of how much power the plant produced, but it was a matter of pride with him, and a little bit of a competition, to operate this state-of-the-art power station better than his peers on the other four crews.  Even though tonight’s crew wasn’t his usual team, as the shift manager he was the one who was ultimately responsible for the performance of the plant.  He was planning on having a good night. 

After his shower, he dressed in his usual tan Dockers, ankle-high Red Wing work boots, and a crisp, white dress shirt with The Headlands logo stitched over the left breast pocket.  Despite his position of authority, he wasn’t required to wear a tie.  As a matter of fact, it was considered a safety hazard around rotating equipment.  If it got caught on the shaft of a motor that was rotating at 1,800 rpm, it could literally rip his head off.  So, a tie was not part of his routine attire. 

Dave checked his pen to make sure it was retracted before he put it in his pocket.  He’d ruined too many shirts by putting away a pen with the tip extended and bleeding ink all over the cotton fabric.  Annoying as that was when it happened, at least the company provided the shirts and he didn’t have to pay for them.  He would, however, suffer the slings and arrows of his merciless crew.  They would make endless fun of him.

Badge, watch, wallet, and keys all put in their various pockets, he headed down to the kitchen to check for messages on the phone and grab a bite to eat.  He half expected to hear from Kay, but the little red light on the answering machine wasn’t blinking.  No messages.  Probably just as well.  He assumed Kay and the kids were enjoying their visit with Nana. He tended to be a bit cranky on graveyards, and he didn’t want to get into an argument with Kay over some silly, unimportant thing. 

He nuked a frozen Mexican dinner in the microwave and sat down to check the stock market and the latest world news on his laptop.  He also wanted to see how his retirement portfolio was doing.  It wasn’t doing what it used to do a few years ago.  The economy was in flux and there was no telling if it would be up by several hundred points or down by a similar margin.  Weird.

After he choked down the ‘fine’ cuisine, he threw together a quick lunch of a can of soup, some fruit, and his favorite desert, Hostess Snowballs.  He could get something to drink from the gedunk machines out at the plant later.  He looked around the kitchen on his way out to the garage to make sure the house was locked and the lights were off.  Satisfied everything was in order, he got in his truck and headed to the plant. He was anticipating another quiet night with both units at 100 percent power and no major maintenance in progress.  The plant was heading into an outage shortly and most maintenance was being deferred to when the plant would be shutdown.

At 6:25 p.m., he pulled into the staff parking lot.  At this time of night, he generally had his choice of spots because the day shift folks had all gone home for the night.  It was chilly as he got out of the truck so he pulled on a light jacket.  He seldom drove with a jacket on because it was bulky and uncomfortable, but usually had one with him for the walk to the plant.

Dave entered the security building and walked into the search train.  He put his lunch on the conveyor, where it was x-rayed for contraband, and stepped into the explosive detectors.  He stood there as a gentle whoosh of air washed over him.  The gentle electronic ‘ding’ told him he was good to continue.  He waved at the security officer stationed there to observe the process, picked up his lunch off the conveyor, and exited through a one-way turnstile to the outside and the short walk to the admin building. 

Once outside, he heard the familiar drone of the station.  Some of it was the mechanical noise generated by the various pumps and equipment in the turbine building.  The flow noise from both water and steam on three levels of moisture separator reheaters, feedwater heaters, and the massive condenser was so loud inside the turbine building you couldn’t hear someone speak to you unless they were shouting in your ears.  Other noise was a humming coming from three stationary, gas-filled giant transformers as they converted the 25-thousand volts of electricity developed by the immense hydrogen-cooled generators into 500-thousand volts for transmission to the Western Intertie.  The electrical grid was more than one hundred miles from the plant and ran up and down the central valley of California, connecting the western states, which gave it it’s name.  Most people mistakenly thought the station provided electricity to the local community.  In fact, The Headlands—like all power plants producing electricity—supplied electricity to a common network.  Brokers at corporate headquarters in San Francisco and elsewhere buy and sell power based on supply and demand. 

The Headlands was what’s called a base load plant, meaning it’s purpose was to run at one hundred percent power all the time, with smaller peaking units elsewhere in the state adjusting for the changes in demand.  After a dozen years at the plant, Dave could tell whether the plant was running at full power or something less just by listening.  As he expected, it sounded like it was running at full load tonight.  Good for the company, but ultimately a boring night for him and the crew. 

He entered the admin building, now deserted at this time of night, and rode the elevator up to the 140-foot deck, so named for its height above sea level.  From there, he walked across a catwalk to the turbine building, where he picked up his hard hat, safety glasses and hearing protection, and then made the short walk across the turbine deck and into the control room.  

The turbine deck was impressive.  It looked like an airplane hanger with two gigantic four-stage turbines, each with a hydrogen gas-cooled generator at the end.  Three stories overhead hung huge cranes used to lift the 100-ton turbine components during maintenance outages. 

The turbines used both high-pressure and low-pressure steam for their motive force.  The steam ran through huge pipes, which, despite being wrapped in heavy lagging for thermal protection, gave off a lot of heat.  So the turbine deck was both hot and noisy.  For Dave, this was normal.  For visitors, though, the heat and vibrations could make them dizzy.  That wasn’t much of a problem anymore, as visitors were no longer allowed in the plant since 9/11. 

Halfway down the turbine deck was the entrance to the shift manager’s office, which was adjacent to the control room. Dave swiped his badge on the card reader, put his hand in the hand geometry reader, and heard the familiar ‘click’ as the door was unlocked electronically.  He had to lean into the door to push it open because it was a heavy hardened steel door, several inches thick.  The door, like the walls of the control room itself, were designed to provide shielding from radiation for the operators in the unlikely event a reactor accident releases radioactive materials into the plant.  It also had a bulletproof window, allowing people to look inside but keeping them out.  The plant was a commercial facility but still had a significant amount of security.  The control room was the nerve center of the plant, and therefore, the most important place to protect. 

The door opened directly into the shift manager’s office.

“Hey, Bill,” Dave greeted the on-duty shift manager, as he walked into the office.

“Boy, am I glad to see you, Dave.  What a day!”

“Kept you busy, did they?” said Dave as he put his things down on a spare chair and took a seat across the desk from Bill. 

“It’s day-watch.  What else do you expect?  But things are hot, straight, and normal.” 

Dave had to chuckle to himself. Bill was one of the older shift managers and liked the things on his desk to be just so. There were no papers left lying about. His coffee cup was cleaned and put away. His computer screen was positioned perfectly to be seen by whoever sat at the desk. And his pen was parallel to the edge of the desk. Dave wasn’t nearly as organized. And just to pull Bill’s chain, when he was relieved by Bill, he often left things askew on his desk, making sure the pen was at some odd angle.

“Any night orders from the boss I should know about?”

“Just the usual boilerplate stuff.  Nothing new.  Lots of scuttlebutt about Brenda though.  The Health Physics Department is upset about it.  Everybody liked her.  I guess nobody has seen her husband either.  That’s got to be tough.  Nothing for you to get involved with. Just be aware that people are edgy about it.”

“Okay.  I’ll fill in my team at the shift brief tonight.  Both units at 100 percent power?”

“Yup.  You know what you had last night?  More of the same tonight.  No major maintenance going on.  No surveillance testing in progress.  We got it all done for you!”

“Got it.”  Although Dave had his notebook out to take notes, there was nothing much to write down. 

“We have tomorrow’s clearance and tagging requests all printed out and ready for you to hang at 0400.  I know you’ve been on for the last few nights, so you know what the schedule for the week looks like.  You got any questions?” Bill asked.

“Nope.  Let’s do a quick board walk-down and get you outta here.”

“I’m all for that,” Bill responded, eager to go home.

Dave and Bill went into the main area of the control room.  The Headlands was a dual-unit facility, so the control rooms for Unit 1 and Unit 2 were connected and share one large common room.  Bill went to one end of the huge control boards and just started walking, allowing Dave to look at the hundreds of level indicators, pressure indicators, breaker and pump position indicators, valve indicating lights, electrical buses, control rod positions, and main generator output indicators.  To an outsider, it would look impossible for anyone to know what they all meant.  But after years of working in the plant, Dave knew what each one was, what a good reading looked like and how to discern slight trends. 

He also knew the location of valves and equipment outside the control room.  The company put him through an exhaustive twelve-month program to obtain his senior reactor operator license, equivalent to a Bachelor of Science degree in nuclear power.  It included six months, eight hours a day, of reactor physics, heat transfer, thermodynamics, fluid flow, electrical theory, mathematics, and nuclear design.  That was followed by six months of running the plant through startups, shutdowns, casualties, and steady state conditions, all on a simulator.  Then came the NRC boards, including an eight-hour written exam, a plant walkthrough with an NRC inspector lasting four to six hours, and a three-hour simulator exam.  Most operators, who made it through the program, including those who already had college degrees, felt it was the most challenging program they’d ever been through. 

Dave took a few notes as he walked and said hello to the board operators who were in the process of doing the same kind of turnover.  Although this wasn’t his normal crew, he knew all the guys in Operations, including those on watch tonight.  While there were a few women in the Operations Department of about 145 people, none of them were on shift tonight.  It was physically demanding work to be out in the plant, where it’s hot and noisy.  Women were a rarity in this profession.

As they finished the control board walk-down and returned to his office, Dave said, “Okay, Bill, I relieve you.”

“Thanks.  Kenny will be relieving you on the flip side tomorrow morning.  Keep it out of the ditches!”  Bill picked up his lunch box, jacket and personal protective gear, and left their office.

Dave settled in, putting his notebook on the side of the desk, his coffee cup in it’s usual spot, then logged onto the computer to check his e-mail and view various plant programs he’d need to keep an eye on tonight to make sure the plant was working properly. 

That’s when he saw it.  The e-mail was addressed to him, but he didn’t recognize the sender.  The subject said simply:

 

Read Immediately”

 

As he opened the e-mail and read the first few lines, his heart started to race and he broke out in a cold sweat. 

CHAPTER 32

 

Dave read the e-mail quickly the first time through, then slowed down and read it again slowly, shaking as he read:

 

We have your wife and kids.  They’re unharmed and will remain that way if you do as you are told.  Nuclear power is unsafe and we intend to take control of The Headlands tonight to prove it.  You will be contacted later with specific instructions.  Hold power at 100 percent.  Do NOT reduce power.  Do NOT discuss this with anyone on your crew, your supervision, or the police, or we’ll kill your family.  We have someone inside the plant and will know if you talk to anyone.

 

That was it.  That was all. 

Dave stood up, pacing his office, trying to think of what to do.  He needed to talk with someone about this, needed to figure out what to do, but if the note was legitimate, how could he do that without bringing harm to Kay and the kids?  His heart was pounding and random bits of information started imploding in his mind.  The note said they had someone inside the plant.  That was incredible!  Who could that be?  It could be anyone.  Would they really know if he called or e-mailed someone?  What if he talked to someone directly?  But what if that’s the person they have ‘inside’?  An operator?  Security?  This was nighttime, so there weren’t many people out there.  And what did they want him to do?  He had control over the entire power station.  He knew how to run the plant safely, which meant he knew what could cause damage to the plant too.  Was he going to be asked to jeopardize the safety of the public?  He’d do anything to save his family . . . but would he hurt other people . . .?

He was startled as the Unit 1 control room supervisor came into his office saying,  “Time for shift brief, boss.”

Trying to appear calm, Dave said,  “Be right there.”  He couldn’t think straight and was near panic, but he needed to focus.  “Do something normal and it will help you feel normal,” his mom would tell him as a young boy.  He didn’t believe it then and wasn’t sure he believed it now, but he had to move.  He would do the shift briefing and then figure out what to do.  Yes, that’s what he’d do.  He looked for his notebook and a pen, forgetting the one in his shirt pocket. 

The shift briefing was held in the control room 30 minutes after the crew took the watch, which allowed everyone time to walk down their watch-stations so they could come to the brief informed.  The control room operators weren’t allowed to leave the control room unless relieved by someone, so the in-plant operators had to come to them allowing everyone to be in on the briefing at the same time and hear the same things. 

Each of the eighteen guys on shift was polled on the status of the equipment under their control, but Dave wasn’t paying any attention.  He was in a daze.  He needed this briefing to be done with so he could get back in his office and stay by the phone and check e-mails.  One by one, each operator gave a short status of his watch.  This was agonizing to Dave.  He didn’t care what the operators would be doing tonight or what their plans were for the watch.  He just wanted the brief to end.

When it came time for him to summarize work for the shift, he said, “We have no maintenance or surveillances scheduled for the shift.  It’s going to be a quiet night.  Let’s keep it that way.” 

Turning to the two control room supervisors, Dave said, “I want you to run all work requests through me tonight.  We’re expecting some weather,” he lied, “and I want to make sure we don’t do anything to jeopardize load.” 

That didn’t sound unreasonable, so nobody objected.  “End of briefing,” he stated matter-of-factly, then turned around and went back into his office to stare at his computer.

Dave was a man of action by nature and by training, and not doing anything at all was agonizingly painful.  He had to do something—he just didn’t know what that should be.  Then it occurred to him that maybe this was a trick of some kind.  Why, he couldn’t imagine, but if it was, there must be some way he could verify it.  He could respond to the e-mail.  He could write back and see what was going on.  Maybe he could call the computer geeks and have them trace the e-mail.  But they weren’t there this time of night.  Besides that, the sender said he would be watched.  He wasn’t thinking clearly or he would have quickly realized all he had to do was call her cell phone.  Of course!  Just call Kay! 

He stopped pacing, sat down at his desk, picked up his phone, and presses ‘9’ to get an outside line.  He heard a click then the familiar dial tone.  Did he always hear that click?  He couldn’t remember now.  He never paid attention before. 

With shaking hands, he dialed Kay’s cell phone number.  It was evening, so she’d be at Nana’s house by now with the kids, either getting them ready for bed or they were already in bed, worn out from the day in the Magic Kingdom and the long drive.  The phone rang and almost startled Dave as it did so.  His heart was racing.  Just pick up the phone!  Please, pick up!  The longer it rang, the higher his anxiety.  Twice; three times.  He was afraid of what he might hear if it was answered and almost hung up.  It seemed like a lifetime to him.  

On the fourth ring, a man’s voice answered, “Was the note we sent you not clear enough?”

Dave almost fell over.  He tried to swallow the lump in his throat, but his mouth had no spit in it.  “Who are you and what do you want?” he said, not really knowing what to expect.

“Who I am is unimportant,” said the voice in a calm, yet threatening manner.  “You will do exactly what we tell you to do, when we tell you to do it.  If you call the authorities, we will kill your wife or one of your kids.”

Dave’s mind didn’t know how to comprehend what was happening.  All he could do was respond with the first thing that came into his head.  “How do I know you really have them?” he asked, knowing that of course they did.  They had his wife’s cell phone. 

The man on the other end of the phone described what Dave’s wife and children were wearing, and the name and room number of the motel where they’d been staying. 

“Do as you’re told and no harm will come to them!”

Dave wanted to ask to speak to Kay, but the phone went dead before he had a chance.  He slumped back in his chair and his eyes filled with tears.

CHAPTER 33

 

The plant security force was always understaffed.  Like other departments that had to train their employees, security had to run brand new armed responders through a training program before they could be given weapons and put on the watch bill.  And it took time and resources to run those classes, two things that were always in short supply.  Security wasn’t a glamorous job, frequently involving a lot of standing around, watching the paint dry.  It would be more exciting to put a dime in a parking meter and watching it expire. There had never been an armed attack on a nuclear power plant since nuclear power was first used to generate electricity more than five decades ago.  That bred complacency. 

Despite all the technological measures and countermeasures they had, personnel still had to staff posts near the perimeter fence and in other remote areas, sometimes sitting for hours at a time to watch for intruders who they were sure were never going to show up.  To alleviate the boredom, some plants actually allowed the security officer in remote posts to read magazines and books and, in some cases, to watch videos.  Management believed this was better than having them fall asleep, as had happened at one or two stations in the past.  The pay for someone in security wasn’t as good as that in the technical departments either, but like other departments, specialty work meant specialty pay.  In the world of security, being an armed responder was a specialty, meaning more training and more pay, and was therefore the sought-after job in the department. 

Because The Headlands had fewer personnel than management would have liked, security officers, as well as their supervisors, had to work overtime routinely.  While this made for big paychecks for them, it also meant a lot of long hours.  As a result, Hector still had the graveyard watch as the security supervisor, and had for several days.  This turned out to be okay, though, because he was finishing the report on what went wrong the other day in the security drill.  And if he had to do it, he might as well get paid for it.  So working overtime provided him some time to get it done.

Hector was sitting at a desk on the raised security shift supervisor’s platform in the security building when he noticed his manager walk in and step into the metal detectors.  His presence there at that time of night was unusual, though not unheard of. 

“Hey, Rob.  What’re doing here?  Checking up on me?”

“No rest for the weary.”  Rob stepped out of the metal detector and into the explosive detector.  A moment later, hearing the ‘ding’, he stepped forward into the security building.  Despite the fact that he ran the department, he had to be screened before coming in, just like everyone else.

“I’ve got some work to do for Prichard.  He’s amped up about something and I figured I’d come in and work on it for a while.  It’s not like I’m going to get much sleep tonight anyway.  Anything unusual happening tonight?”

“Nope,” Hector replied.  “Quiet as a tomb around here.”

“So long as I’m here, you got a first draft of that report on the drill yet?  I’m going to start getting some heat on that if we aren’t done with it soon.”

“Working on it as we speak,” Hector said. 

As Rob walked past, he looked closer at Hector. “What’s the matter?  You don’t look so good.  You feeling all right?”

“Yeah.  I’m fine.  Just working some long hours, you know?”

“Okay.  I plan to be here for a while, so it would be nice to read what you have as soon as you can put a bow on it.”  Then, as if it were an afterthought, he said,  “Hey, have you got that NeXus report handy?  I want to take a look at that again too.”

“It’s over in CAS at my other desk.  I’ll bring it by in a little bit.”

“Okay.”  Rob glanced around.  “I don’t see Lynn anywhere around.  Have her come see me when she can, okay?  I’ll be in my office.”

“I think she’s in CAS, too,” Hector told his manager.  “I’ll let her know.” 

With that, Rob went through the security turnstiles and into the plant protected area.  He had a nice corner office on the bottom floor of the admin building.  This kept him close to his people, who were mostly located in the security building, while being available to senior leadership a few floors above him. 

However, tonight, he went to the elevators and up to the fifth floor, straight to Prichard’s office as instructed.  When he got there, the door was open, so he knocked on the doorjamb and walked in.

Prichard was sitting behind his desk, looking at some e-mail on his computer.  When he saw Rob, he got up.  “Thanks for coming in.  Please close the door.”

Rob did as instructed.  “No problem.  What’s going on?”

Despite Nick’s warning about trusting others, Prichard felt he needed to bring Rob in on what was going on.  If he didn’t and something happened, his security force would be compromised by not being prepared.  Besides that, if the FBI and sheriff knew, sooner or later Rob would find out.  Better for Prichard to bring him in than have someone else do it.

“We have a credible threat against the station.”

Rob immediately went quiet and questions started rolling through his mind.  Did this just happen?  Why the hell wasn’t he told about this earlier?  ‘Credible threat’ meant the FBI and the NRC had already verified it and they believed it was real or they wouldn’t be too concerned about it. 

“That explains some of the chatter I’ve been hearing from the guys at the sheriff’s office.  Nobody has said anything openly yet, but I figured something was in the wind.”

“Yeah.  I apologize I didn’t speak to you earlier about this but conditions dictated that I keep this pretty close for the time being. Do you have the NeXus report?”

“Hector has it.  He’s working on the drill evaluation and felt the report would help him with some details.”

“I’d like you to get the report back for me,” Prichard said with as little emotion as he could.  “I want to look at it again.”

“Okay.  No problem.”

Rob and Prichard went back a-ways.  They’d both been with the company a long time, and Prichard had learned to lean on his security manager for sound advice and council.  Sometimes it was helpful to go outside the technical ranks to get that.  Prichard was the one who recommended Rob for the position over more senior people.  It wasn’t a popular decision at the time, but Rob had won over both his staff as well as the local sheriff.  Community relations are sometimes as necessary as technical competency when it came to running a nuclear power plant.  Many people in the community were concerned about the dangers of living near a plant.  So they looked to their leaders to represent their best interests.  Plant leadership knew it and worked to cultivate a good relationship with them every chance they got.  That was where Rob exceled.  He was well liked by the sheriff and the county administrator.

Prichard went on.  “It gets worse.  The FBI thinks there’s an insider.  I mean, when you think about it, that’s not a stretch.  After all, someone killed Brenda.  That kind of thing doesn’t happen accidentally.”

Rob was visibly shaken by the news.  It wasn’t like he hadn’t already considered it, but to hear the VP say it out loud caused him to wonder if someone was blaming him.  Someone on the inside could cause a lot of problems.  He knew that all too well, as did almost everyone else.  And if the FBI believed there was a mole, they would make his life difficult . . . even more than Prichard knew.

“Does the FBI have any leads on who it might be?” he asked softly, his heart pounding in his ears.

“Nothing yet, but keep your ears open and mouth shut on this one.  We don’t want to give away what little we know or think.” 

Rob’s heart was beating fast now, and he was quickly starting to piece things together.  “How worried do you think we should be about this NeXus report?”

“Plenty,” Prichard replied.  “Connor was very thorough.  I scanned the report before I gave it to you.  Looks like he covered a lot of vulnerabilities that we already know about, and some we didn’t.  And we need to remember that he beat your team.  So he probably has a good handle on how you’re organized, what works and what doesn’t.  I imagine most or all of that is in the report.  So if it gets out, it’s a bit like a game plan for the other side.  And that’s why I want to get it back.”

It was all coming at Rob fast.  He was behind the information curve, and he didn’t like that.  This was his plant and he needed to know what was going on.  He prided himself on knowing more than everyone else.  “I still can’t believe any of my guys are involved with this.  I know these guys.  It just doesn’t scan.”

“No sense in trying to figure out how all this happened.  Right now we need to figure out what to do about it.  And remember; let’s keep this close for now.  Keep your reason for being out here believable.”

“With everything that’s going on, it would probably be more odd if I weren’t out here,” Rob said.

“Check in with me later.  I’ll be here for a while.”

“Will do.”  Rob hesitated for a moment as if he wanted to say something, then thought better of it, turned and left his VPs office, far more distressed than when he’d arrived.  He knew it was going to be a long night.  Not knowing who to trust was only going to make it that much harder.

CHAPTER 34

 

The winter sun had set hours ago, leaving a darkness extending far out over the vast expanse of water, the tips of the barely visible wave tops white against the blackness of the sky.  A light breeze was blowing off the ocean, carrying with it the pungent smell of seawater and decaying marine life, as the surf lapped relentlessly against the massive concrete breakwater pilings.

As Marti walked down the hallway of the administration building to meet with the vice president, she saw the security manager leave his office and head toward the elevators.  She ducked down a short hall, careful to stay out of his line of sight.  Seeing him right now only added to the anxiety she was feeling since her recent phone conversation.  He seemed lost in thought and thankfully didn’t notice her.  She felt a little foolish for trying to hide and shrugged it off as she continued to the VP’s office.  But the admin building, normally a beehive of activity during the day, was deserted now, and the quiet gave it an eerie feeling.  An irrational fear caused the hair on her arms to stand up, as she quickened her pace down the hall.

Entering management row, she saw Prichard’s door open and a soft, inviting light extending out into the hall.  Without announcing herself or waiting for an invitation to enter, she went in, closing the door behind her. 

Prichard looked up from the computer on his large mahogany desk.  “Marti!  I wasn’t sure you’d still be here, but I’m glad you stopped by.” 

He could see that Marti was breathless and didn’t know why, but her face was pale, and for a moment she looked vulnerable, in an attractive way, and he let his mind drift off to unspoken possibilities.

“What’s up?” he asked casually.  His ability to stay calm generally worked to his advantage when his subordinates came to him with bad news regarding the plant.  Even though Marti didn’t work for him directly, he adopted that posture naturally.

She stood in front of Prichard’s desk, choosing not to sit down, looking at him and then around the office, unwilling to hold eye contact with him.  Something about the way he was looking at her gave her the shivers.  She assumed it was the combination of events so far that had an unnerving effect on her.

 “Nick suggested I hang close to the site and keep in touch with the FBI and NRC.  He thought they’d be more likely to talk to me using the secure terminal equipment phone, instead of an unsecured line.  Turns out he was right.”

She took a deep breath to steady herself, and then continued. “The FBI has reason to believe the whole story being circulated by the anti-nuclear community about the safety of nuclear power is a ruse.  The Bureau is getting some intel that the Chinese are positioning themselves to begin buying parts from nuclear plants in the US.”

Prichard had previously met with the Chinese as part of a US nuclear trade delegation.  Senior nuclear industry executives frequently did this so they could make sure their companies were up to speed on emerging world markets.  It also helped the federal trade delegation with real-world experience in specific areas—in this case, commercial nuclear power.  Since meeting with the Chinese a year ago, Prichard and his staff discovered that the Chinese had inserted virus programs in the US envoy’s computers and phones and were blatantly trying to steal trade secrets.  It got to the point that when the US representatives traveled they would use stand-alone laptops with only the minimum amount of information on them, and ones that were not connected in any way to a US local area network.  When they got back to the States, the computers were wiped clean and reprogrammed.  Cell phones were temporary ones, which were disposed of when they returned.  This was the only way the US had to prevent the Chinese from stealing technology.  So it wasn’t surprising to Prichard when Marti suggested that the Chinese might be involved in something related to this threat.  In fact, that’s why he warned Nick of the possibility. 

“What’s the FBI’s take on all this?” he asked.

Marti crossed her arms in front of her before she replied, “They believe the Chinese are funding destabilization efforts of the commercial nuclear industry and see this threat, if carried out, as a way to do that.  Again, they believe the threat is real.  It would be cheaper for the Chinese to buy parts from us if plants like The Headlands were shut down and not allowed to start back up.”

Prichard leaned back in his chair.  “If the FBI believes that, then why don’t the feds move in and shut them down?”

“They have no proof.  Not yet, anyway,” Marti said.

“So what do they want us to do in the meantime?”

Marti knew what she was about to say next would not be received well.  Even she thought it was a stretch.  “They want you to stop the outage preps, stay at power, lock down the site, and get all non-essential personnel off site.  They want to sweep the plant for explosive devices and put a ribbon of steel around this place.” 

“You’re kidding, right?”  He knew it made sense from their perspective and was consistent with the briefings he’d had with the NRC on plant safety.  But he had a business to run.  From that perspective, it was a stupid idea.  “We’re going to have to shut down sooner or later.  You—the NRC—know that.  We’re getting ready for our coast down period that we always do prior to refueling the core.  We’re running out of fuel.  We can’t keep a plant like this running indefinitely.  How long do they think this is going to take?”

Marti dropped her arms, moved to one of the chairs and sat down; more from exhaustion than from relaxation.  She leaned back and crossed her legs.  She noticed that Prichard’s gaze shifted to her legs and then quickly back to her eyes. 

“Minimum of three weeks to sweep the plant and recheck all the outage personnel.  The NRC knows you’re in the process of lowering power to maximize your burn-up of the fuel.  We’re asking that you delay that as long as possible.”

“It’s not that simple.  Delaying the coast-down will cause us to skew our power profile.”  Prichard had been through license class and had been trained in core physics.  He knew that burning the fuel at higher power for a longer period of time would build in more poisons that would make it much harder to start back up after the outage.  They only replaced 1/3 of the core with new fuel.  The rest was existing fuel that they put back in.  So burning it longer now would affect their ability to bring the unit back on line.  “That could affect our core re-load.  I’d have to run that by engineering before I’d agree to anything.  Wouldn’t it be safer if we just shut down?”

Marti knew it wasn’t that simple too but she had her instructions.  “Not necessarily.  The Commissioners have reason to believe that the plant may already be compromised and that shutting down might risk triggering an event that would cause more harm than good.  That’s why they want you to minimize load changes and allow them to sweep the plant while it’s at steady-state power.”

Prichard looked out the window into the darkness outside, though there was nothing to see.  “I could maybe give you three days, but certainly not three weeks.  I assume they have a plan, correct?” thinking of Nick, wondering how he was going to get this information to him.

“Yes.  They’ll be on site tomorrow morning to start locking it down.  They figure it’s a Saturday and the fewest number of employees will be on site.”

“Tomorrow?”  Prichard could feel control of the situation slipping away from him.  “I’ll have to let corporate headquarters know what’s going on.  And I’ll have to let our security people know so they can prepare for this.  Rob Ellingson was just here.  I’ll brief him after you leave.”

Marti looked at him now and held his gaze. “I’m sorry sir, you can’t do that.”

“And why is that?” Prichard bristled.  “Of course I’m going to tell him!  He’s my security manager.”

Marti lowered her voice,  “The FBI believes Rob may be the insider.”

Prichard’s heart started to race.  He leaned forward in his chair, trying to absorb this information, not wanting to believe it.

“I’ve known Rob for years!  I got him his position!  Why would he do this?”

“Motive is usually money, but we don’t know for sure.”

Prichard wasn’t convinced yet.  “What do they have that makes them think its Rob?  I don’t want to hear about ‘they’ve got a psychological profile on him’.  You’re going to need something more concrete before I’ll believe this about Rob!”

Marti took note that he now considered her on the ‘other side’.  She calmly said, “The FBI was able to trace some cell phone traffic to his phone on site.  The cell phone belongs to a man named Jansen.  This is the same guy who Nick says he saw in town the other day.  The FBI has quite a file on this guy.”

Prichard didn’t know what to say, this news catching him completely off guard.  It sounded like damning and persuasive evidence of wrongdoing.

“One more thing you should know,” Marti continued. “Jansen has been keeping company with a guy named Stone, who rented a car in LA recently and then disappeared.  The FBI is looking for him, but so far, no luck.”

Even though he was a large black man, Marti thought she could see the blood drain from Prichard’s face. “What is it?” she asked.  “Are you feeling all right?”

Prichard had a distant stare.  “Nick asked me to look at shift staffing to see if there was anything unusual.”

“So?”

“The shift manager scheduled for tonight called in sick and was replaced by Dave Street.”

Marti didn’t see the issue.  “How does that connect to this?”

“The shift manager runs this place.  He has knowledge and access to whatever he wants.  He’s key to the safe operation of this facility.”

“I know all that, but I still don’t see . . . ”

Prichard cut her off by jumping out of his chair.  He leaned on the desk with his large palms down. 

“His wife and two children are down in LA at Disneyland!”

CHAPTER 35

 

Prichard was uncharacteristically unnerved.  This was new territory for him.  He was a smart man and one who knew how to navigate the various political realities of running a large nuclear power plant, and showed poise and grace in doing it.  He was no longer involved with engineering details of running the plant—his first love.  His job was one of politics now.  It was this ability, more than his engineering knowledge, that resulted in him being chosen as the site vice president for this nuclear plant in a politically charged state.  But now his plant was under threat of attack, and if he believed what he’d just been told, they had help from a handpicked member of his staff. 

Prichard had a well-nourished ego, and was used to dealing with Washington types and executives from his own company as well as those from other nuclear power companies, but he was unprepared for all of this.  Terrorists had never taken over a nuclear power plant before.  Despite all the planning and drills, it was actually happening now and it just didn’t fit into his neat, orderly existence. 

In front of him sat a very young woman, who, right now, was the face of the federal government to him.  He knew she was out of her league, as much as he was out of his. By morning the plant would be crawling with FBI and county law enforcement, whether he liked it or not. 

He started to quickly organize what he knew.  The FBI wanted to lock down the plant and do a detailed search, but of course, the feds didn’t know the plant.  They were going to need help from people who did and that would be a logistical nightmare.  Whatever they were looking for was probably already here.  He was charged with the protection of the health and safety of the people who lived around the plant, and he couldn’t do anything to jeopardize that.  On the technical side of things, holding power at 100 percent for a couple of weeks was simply impossible.  If he were going to comply with the FBI wishes, he would have to find a way to manage the needs of the plant as well as the wants of the FBI.  To do that, he’d need help from his plant staff and at the moment, didn’t know whom he could and could not trust.

But he had no intention of letting it get that far.  He looked at his watch.  He had an ace in the hole . . . one that the FBI didn’t know about.  He was running out of time, and he knew it. 

Just then, his hone rang, breaking him out of his contemplation.  Even though the phone didn’t indicate who was calling, he recognized the number as one Nick had been using.

 

  • * * * *

 

“Hey, Nick. I’ve been waiting for your call.  I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Prichard surprised me.  He said ‘bad news’ in a matter of fact way, as if he were talking about some maintenance activity.  I was impressed with his ability to stay calm under trying, and certainly unanticipated, circumstances.  That was actually a boost to my morale, which was, admittedly, a bit low considering what I was about to do.

“I’ve been busy.  Fill me in.”

“Marti is here and is telling me that in the morning, the feds want me to stop the outage preps and clear the plant site of unnecessary personnel.   Then they want us to sweep the plant.  They’re hoping to stop whatever and whoever might be trying something.”

 I had some bad news for him, too, but before I could get to it, he told me something I didn’t know.

“The FBI thinks that Ellingson is the insider.  My security manager, for God’s sake! I can’t believe it, but they’ve been monitoring phone calls between him and that guy you talked about, Jansen.”

I took the news in stride. I suspected it was someone in security, but I wouldn’t have guessed the security manager.  In my experience, I could always count on something unexpected like this.  But my plans had already been set in motion regardless of who had been corrupted.  

“That’s unfortunate,” I told him in an even, measured tone,  “but not altogether unexpected.  Regardless, we’ve got to move and move now . . . tonight.  We can’t—and don’t want to—wait for the FBI to take action tomorrow.”

Prichard paused briefly, and then said, “Good.  We need to put this to bed and soon.  I can’t have them roaming all over the plant looking for God knows what.   

Not exactly what I was expecting to hear.  I was expecting him to push back.  He continued to surprise me.  He had more fortitude that I’d have given him credit for.  And that was good because he’d need it before this was done.  I hoped he would take what I was about to tell him with as much aplomb. 

“I need you to do something for me,” I said quietly.  I’d found in the past that soft tones helped convey difficult news.

“What is it?” Prichard said in a more subdued voice, in response to my hushed tones.

“I need you to reduce power on Unit 1 to fifty percent and shut down the 1-1 main circulating water pump.  Then shut down and clear the screens on that pump.”

Prichard was quiet for a moment.  The main circ water pump pushed sea water into the condenser for cooling. They only had two pumps per unit and shutting one down required them to reduce power to fifty percent. I knew he was processing this request.  I wanted to make sure he understood what he’d just heard, so I gave him a few seconds to absorb it. 

Then Prichard said, “What the hell good is shutting down the 1-1 circ water pump going to do for us?  If I order the shift manager to reduce power, there’ll be operators all over the plant taking actions.  That’s dangerous on a number of levels.  Then there’s the FBI.  I doubt they’re going to like that idea very much.”

“I thought you said the FBI wasn’t going to be there until morning?”

“Well, yes, that’s what Marti said.”

“Then they haven’t given you any directions, yet, correct?”

“Technically, that’s correct, but Marti . . .”

“Look, we can go round and round on this but we don’t have time.  Tell whoever you need to you have to reduce power because of a screen problem.  Tell them kelp has broken off because of the storm, clogged the screens, and you have to reduce power immediately.  It happens this time of year, doesn’t it?  Besides, fifty percent power isn’t going to cause a problem with any of security’s target sets. Correct me if I’m wrong but dropping power actually helps us by reducing the source term,” I said.  “If the bad guys are successful in causing plant damage and a release of some kind, then starting from a lower power level will limit the amount of radioactivity released.  I’m sure the FBI folks don’t know that but will respect the fact that you do.  So you need to sell them on this.  Or not.  I don’t care.  Just shut the pump down and do it soon!”

Prichard knew I wasn’t a licensed operator and shouldn’t know this much about how his power plant works, but he also knew I had my sources.  Regardless, I assumed he was still taken aback by my direction to him.  I simply needed him to do as I’d asked and stop trying to figure out why I wanted it.  I didn’t want to explain things to him.  I didn’t have the time and I wasn’t sure the phones were secure.  But Prichard persisted.

“I’m not taking action like that until I understand why.”

I knew I had to give him something to get him to cooperate.  “I’m coming in and it’s the only way I can do it without security seeing me.”

Prichard was silent and then I knew he got it.

“You’re crazy!  That can’t be done.  You can’t get through the bar racks and the screens.  And even if you do, you need to get through the pump impeller.  That just isn’t possible.” 

The bar racks are huge, long bars of steel in the water at the Intake structure.  Stretching from the sea floor to the top of the ocean level, they’re used to stop large objects like logs from floating into the screens and jamming them.  The screens are just that—screens that rotate up and over in front of the intake to the huge main circulating water pump.  They collect seaweed and other flotsam in the water, to keep it all out of the pump.  Even if something—somehow—got through, the next obstacle was the circulating water pump impeller. 

“I think it is.  I’ve looked at the prints of those pumps.  The main seawater tunnels are big enough to drive cement trucks through.  And the pump impellers are big enough to pump large fish without tearing them up.  Right?”

Prichard knew I was right.  The pumps moved 35,000 gallons of water per minute up to the condenser, so they had a huge impeller.  Large fish had been found in the condenser water box. 

“Yes, but you’re not a fish.  Even if you make it past the bar racks and screens, and then somehow move yourself through the pump, how are you going to get out of the condenser water-box?” 

The water box collected all the seawater before it was pushed through thousands of small-diameter tubes no bigger than a large finger.  Those water boxes had access hatches on them, but nothing you could operate from inside the water-box itself. 

“That’s where you come in.  They got a guy on the inside, and so will we.  I’m counting on you to get someone to un-dog the hatch and let me out.  Can you do that?”

I needed to press him now.  I could tell from the questions and tone in his voice that he didn’t think this was remotely possible to do.  I’d given him enough time to get over the shock of what I’d wanted him to do and for his brain to revert to what it does well—analyze.

“I’m going to have to get someone from operations to do that.  They’re the only ones here at this time of night who know how to do what you want done.  But never mind whether I can get someone to let you out of the water-box or not.  Let me tell you some of the obstacles you are facing.  There’s no breathable air in the tunnels.  That’s one.  The mollusks and seashells on the sides of the tunnel walls will tear you to shreds.  There’s no light in the tunnels, and it’s almost a couple of hundred feet up an incline, from the intake to the condenser inside the turbine building.  I’m telling you, it just can’t be done.”

I was used to people telling me that things cannot be done.  It even happened in the military.  I was given jobs that nobody believed could be accomplished; yet I always found a way using will and determination—it was just not that complicated.  But it scared most people to think of putting themselves into the types of situations I found myself in frequently.  Fear is what keeps most people from accomplishing things in their lives.  And it’s that same unnamed fear that caused people to tell me I couldn’t do it either.  This was precisely what Prichard was doing right now. Because I knew that, I knew I couldn’t reason with him or convince him.  So I didn’t waste my time trying. 

“I’m counting on security and Jansen assuming it can’t be done, too.  This really isn’t open to discussion.  Your job is to get someone to open the hatch.  Can you do that or can’t you?”

I envisioned Prichard shaking his head, wanting to believe it could be done, but his engineering experience saying it couldn’t.  Still, he knew he had no other options that looked good to him.  He had to trust someone.  And right now, strange as it seemed even to him, that person was me.

“Yes,” he agreed reluctantly.  “I’ll figure it out somehow.  But there’s something you need to know first.” 

I didn’t like the sound of that already.  I didn’t need or want any more curve balls right now. 

“The shift manager you met the other day—Dave Street?—it’s likely that his wife and children may have been kidnapped.  They were down at Disneyland, and the FBI traced someone on Jansen’s team to Orange County.  Dave is the shift manager on watch tonight.”

I just shook my head.  It made sense.  For Jansen and his team to be successful, he needed to have control of the plant and the best place to do that from was the control room.  Unfortunately, I needed the shift manager’s cooperation if I was going to make this happen.  If Jansen was successful in coercing him, the odds of my success were going down.  But it couldn’t be helped.  It was the only way in.  I was reasonably sure Jansen had a team in the hills behind the plant ready to come in because that’s what my report said was the plant’s vulnerable spot.  So Jansen would probably set up a perimeter and be ready for any kind of ground assault from the FBI or sheriff SWAT team, especially from the dark side behind the plant.  That would make my getting in that way unobserved, moot.  And with the security manager on Jansen’s team and controlling some aspect of security, then getting in through the front door was out of the question.  So going in through the seawater tunnels was the only way.

As calmly as I could, I said, “You need to get to Street. You need to get him on our side.  Reassure him.  Tell him we’re going to make sure his family is all right.  I’ll call you back in thirty minutes.  You have until then to talk with him and get this set up.”  With that I hung up the phone. 

Turning to Pete, I said,  “Well, that went about as well as expected.”

Pete just looked at me and nodded.  “We knew this wasn’t going to be a cakewalk.  Nothing ever goes completely as planned.  We know that.”

And I did know that.  Didn’t mean I had to like it, though.  “Okay,” I said.  “Time to saddle up.  Let’s go.  We need to get on site.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Prichard put the phone down.  “Marti, you’ll have to excuse me now.  I have something I need to do.”

“Was that Nick?  What’s going on?  What did he tell you? What does he want you to do?”

“I’m sorry.  There’s really no time for this.  Please close the door on your way out.”

Marti could see she was being dismissed.  She had little choice but to leave and return to her office, feeling isolated and unsure about what to do next. 

CHAPTER 36

 

Pete slowed our car as we prepared to pass through the security gate to the power plant.  In the short line of cars full of employees and contractors, Pete and I were just two more guys heading in to the plant for the graveyard shift just before midnight.  Maintenance personnel and contractors work eight-hour shifts instead of twelve-hour shifts like the operators. 

Pete pulled out the car pass I’d been issued, put it on the dashboard, and proceeded through the gate into the owner-controlled area.  The guard at the gate didn’t check the pass to see if it matched the car or the driver.  It was late and there was a line of cars processing in.  He looked at the pass to make sure it was the correct color for this quarter and waved us through the gate and onto the access road. 

This was only the owner-controlled area.  We still had miles of access road to traverse before we got to the parking lots.  To get into the plant itself, which is inside the protected area, I would have to go through the security building where I would use the badge I’d been given.  Obviously I couldn’t do that now without my presence becoming known. 

We proceeded up the access road, careful not to exceed the posted speed limits. Along the way, we discussed the change in plans required by my conversation with Prichard.

“You need to get to LA,” I told Pete.  “You need to find and rescue the shift manager’s family.  We don’t know where they are, but we can bet they’re holed up somewhere near Disneyland.  It would be safer for Jansen if they didn’t move around with a woman and two young kids.”

We passed through some beautiful scenic areas on our way up the road to the plant.  Gently rolling hills, covered with white oak trees and Manzanita, leading down to the Pacific Ocean.  But tonight wasn’t the time for sightseeing.  We kept moving steadily toward the plant, in the line of graveyard workers who knew nothing of what was about to happen.

“We can also assume Jansen isn’t in Orange County anymore.  He’s going to want to be here to control things.  So he’s probably left the wife and kids with someone else.  That’s your job.  We need the shift manager on our side.  You know the drill.”

“Got it, boss.  I’ll need to loop back to the cabin and pick up a few things.  I’m going to need to do some work on the plane.”  The private jet that flew Pete and the team in was on standby at the Ukiah airport.  “Do we have any intel at all?” 

“Nothing hard, but we can assume Jansen moved her to another location, though I doubt it’ll be far away from the motel they were staying in.  My bet would be a rental house nearby.  They probably set this up in the last week or two, so there shouldn’t be too many of those to look through.  They’d need some transportation, so they likely rented a car.  But we don’t know if that’s going to be traceable or not.  Jansen would use a false ID, so that’ll be a dead end.”

“Wouldn’t it have been easier to just steal one and not risk tipping off the FBI through a rental car agency?”

“Stealing a car could get the attention of the law quicker than using a false ID.  So I doubt it.”

“What about the FBI?  They got anything useful for us?” Pete asked as he slowed around a dark curve in the road.

“The FBI picked up on some cell phone traffic.  That’s all we know.  You might be able to trace them through their phone, but you’ll have to narrow down the search parameters a bit. I’ll call Marti and see if she can get you any additional information.  I’ll have her call you on the plane.”

“It’s not a lot to go on,” Pete said almost absentmindedly, as if working through some ideas in his head. We drove on in silence for a while, each of us weighing our next moves, possible outcomes, and unexpected problems. 

There was a turnout up ahead, usually used by big trucks that go slower than the rest of the traffic, to allow the faster cars to go by.  Right now, it was Pete who was driving slowly.  He needed an excuse to pull off the road, and a long line of cars behind him would do the trick.  Just prior to getting to the plant, Pete pulled off the side of the road on the last turnout and came to a stop.  He rolled his window down and waved everyone by.  The cars behind him gratefully picked up speed as they passed.  No one wanted to be late for his shift.

After the line of cars passed by, leaving us alone on the dark coastal road, Pete popped the trunk release as I quickly got out of the car.  I grabbed a large bag, closed the trunk, and slipped into the brush on the side of the road.  I didn’t look back at Pete.  We didn’t need to exchange words or wish each other luck.  We each had a seemingly impossible task to do and needed to get to it. 

Hidden in the brush, I heard Pete get back on the road, hang a U-turn, and head back to the front gate. I made sure I was well off the road and out of sight of any cars that might be heading in.  Fortunately, there weren’t any in sight.  The terrain was rugged and filled with brush.  It was also almost midnight, with any moonlight obscured by low clouds, so I had no problems concealing myself.  I could see the light from the plant, which was just over the next hill.  This was close enough, I thought to myself. 

I got out my night vision gear and scanned the coastline about 40 feet below me.  The NVG allowed me to pick up heat signatures from several hundred feet away.  Against the backdrop of the cold waters of the Pacific Ocean, I had no problem picking out the shape of a lone person in a small skiff, staying very close to the coastline and moving slowly toward the plant intake area.  Good. 

The air was cold and wet, yet somehow, I didn’t notice.  I needed to make a phone call.

CHAPTER 37

 

Just before midnight on Friday, Jansen drove onto the plant site, sitting among four of the six men who months earlier had established themselves as contractors for the outage.  Heading onto the plant site for the graveyard shift, they were running a bit late because of a slow driver up ahead.  There was no passing on the road and tempers sometimes flared when people drove so slowly.  Finally, the slow driver pulled off to the side, rolled down his window, and waved the cars by.  Everyone, including the truck Jansen was in, sped up to get by him.  

Shift change always involved a number of people coming and going, which made it much easier for Jansen to be able to go where he needed to go, unnoticed.  The security guard at the front gate didn’t pay much attention to how many people were in the truck, so long as the vehicle they were in had a car pass.  Theirs had one.  So Jansen headed onto the site with his team.  He smiled to himself at how easy this was so far. 

As they got closer to the site, he could see the upper lot, which was on a small hill overlooking the back of the plant.  This parking lot, for contractors, was not close to the plant like the ones used by and reserved for the plant staff.  Contractors were temporary employees and didn’t qualify for the perks the permanent plant staff enjoyed, like close-in parking.  So they had to park in these overflow lots. 

But tonight this was exactly what Jansen wanted.  He’d be up the hill behind the plant.  From this remote parking lot, he had a natural command post in an area that was not well patrolled by station security people.  They’d be focused on the activities and equipment inside the protected area, as well as the gates in and out of the plant. 

Just before the men got to the plant site, they took the side road that led uphill to these lots.  Once there, Jansen made sure his man parked the truck in a corner, away from the few lights set up to provide minimum illumination for the lot.  It didn’t really matter, though, as they’d all be turned off soon enough.  That’s standard protocol during certain types of security events where the station didn’t wish to be seen from a distance.  It was assumed the plant staff’s defensive posture would be enhanced by darkness, so the first part of the response in the event of an attack would be to contact operations and have them open several key electrical breakers and turn off non-essential lighting.  Parking lots were obviously not essential lighting.  This strategy was outlined in Nick’s report.  Tonight, this tactic would work against them.  So easy, Jansen thought to himself again. 

Tucked away in the corner of the lot, he stayed in the truck and watched as the men with him grabbed their lunch pails and walked through the maze of parked cars, down the wooden stairs to the lower lot, through the security building, and into the facility. 

At the same time, he knew the other half of his team should already be in position.  Nick had identified the best place to attack from, so that was precisely where Jansen sent them.  It took them several hours to hump in from the rugged hills behind the plant and get into place outside the fenced perimeter.  The hills were steep, filled with brush and thickets, and it was dark as pitch.  It was easy to lose their footing, and someone had more than once.  But they were all rugged men and had done similar things in the past.  Besides, for the money they were being paid, they just sucked it up and did it. 

Things were coming together nicely and about as Jansen had expected.  He’d give those of his guys heading into the plant a couple of hours to get in place.  The plan he put together some time ago wasn’t complicated, but it required access to the various buildings that housed the turbine and reactor auxiliary equipment.  That hadn’t been particularly easy to do, but once that had been solved, the rest was fairly simple to arrange. 

Rob was the one who figured out how to get weapons and explosives inside the protected area side of the warehouse.  He suggested they use the cover of an outage when lots of bulk crates, boxes, and parts were coming in.  With hundreds of deliveries being made, some loss of concentration could be expected, despite an attempt at increased surveillance.  He could then enhance the lack of attention by buying off someone in Security who needed the money and knew enough to do what he was told and keep his mouth shut. 

It was actually Jansen’s idea to get Rob to plant the seed of an idea with the vice president that they needed to do a security evaluation.  Jansen knew that it was common in the industry for outsiders such as NeXus to come in and do these assessments.  They would no doubt have someone who was an expert in urban assault and target acquisition write a detailed report.  Industry executives were in fear of the regulators shutting them down for lack of a workable security plan, more than they were of actual intruders.  So, once the idea was established in Prichard’s mind to go to Washington and meet with the intelligence community, the odds were good NeXus would be hired.  Then all Waxman Industries had to do was get the report in Jansen’s hands and he’d have excellent inside intelligence.

The takeover of the facility and the plan to generate terror was based on the ability to infiltrate the plant, have the inside men hide their remote controlled explosives in specific locations, and then stand back where they could control the situation with relative ease and impunity. 

To make this more effective, they needed a disturbance to take the security officers’ attention off the real threat inside.  So the team outside could mount a breach of the plant from their position in the hills, which would serve to distract the armed responders.  Then the group on the inside would move in behind them and finish the job. 

The plan wasn’t supposed to involve killing people such as Brenda Williams.  In fact, it had happened before Jansen could stop it.  It was a stupid move and one that took away the element of surprise.  Jansen was, in fact, furious with Stone because he didn’t feel the risk had been necessary.  As it turned out, the body washing up on shore validated Jansen’s concerns.  He was working with idiots and he didn’t like that. It was too dangerous and exposed him to failure. Perhaps the notion that this could be done without casualties had been naïve.   Before he was done he vowed to himself there would be one more.  He’d make sure Stone paid for his arrogance. 

Rob probably knew that too, but chose to overlook it until it was too late and he was committed.  Just look at how easy it had been for him to set this in motion.  His justification was that he was serving a higher good.  These plants weren’t safe and he would get this plant shut down, which was better for the people of California—and he would make a significant amount of money for himself in the process.  Money he would need as he would sooner or later lose his job if the plant shut down. 

Jansen looked at his watch.  It wouldn’t be long now.

CHAPTER 38

 

I moved through the brush until I found a tiny clearing where I could squat down and call Marti.  When she answered her phone, and without preamble, I said, “I assume you’re in your office?”

“Yes!”  I could hear the strain in Marti’s voice.  She’d been up a long time and probably wasn’t used to it.  People make mistakes when they’re tired so this wasn’t an optimal situation for her.  It was almost midnight and she could be at ground zero of a nuclear disaster if this didn’t work.  I found that to be an unsettling thought.  I was sure that as the senior resident on site, she felt some responsibility for the outcome of this situation.  But on another level I found myself hoping that wasn’t the only reason she’d stayed.   It was stupid, I knew.  I’d just met her.  She could be responsible from a safer distance.

“Good.  How’re you doing?” I asked with genuine concern.

“I’m better now that I can hear your voice and talk to you,” she said with candid enthusiasm. “It’s getting creepy around here.  I don’t know if it’s because I’m tired or what.”

“I assume you know the shift manager’s wife and children have probably been kidnapped?”

“Prichard briefed me a little while ago.  That’s horrible!  That’s the kind of thing you read about in the newspaper but never think will happen to people you know.”

“I know, but we’re going to help them, okay?  To do that I need you to get all the intel you can on where they were and what the FBI has on them.  Can you get that?”

“I don’t know.  The FBI doesn’t share its information readily with others.  I may have to get my boss in Washington D.C. to put some pressure on them.  I’ll have to figure out how to do all this, but I’ll find a way.”

“Good girl!” I said encouragingly.  “Just don’t take too long.  Write this number down,” (I gave her Pete’s number).  “A guy named Pete will answer the phone.  Give him whatever information you can get.  He’s on his way to Orange County as we speak.”

“What’s he going to be able to do?” Marti asked.  “If the FBI knows where they are, won’t they just go get them?”

“That’s not their style.  They’ll likely try to negotiate first or roll this into a bigger plan.  We don’t have that kind of time.  This is going to go down much sooner than they’re planning for.”

“Does Pete have a bunch of guys with him?” 

“Pete will be fine,” I assured her.  “Just get him the information as soon as possible.  He’ll be there in two hours and needs it before then.”

Marti paused before responding with some hesitancy in her voice.  “I’ll do my best.”

I could tell she was stressing out.  I was asking a lot of her, but I had no other choice right now.  “I know you will,” I said, trying to show her some compassion.  I wasn’t usually this concerned about my team’s feelings, but she wasn’t on my team.  She was a bystander, an innocent who’d been caught up in things.

I signed off.  I had things I needed to do, as did she.  I had to work my way down to the water.  Time to get moving.

 

  • * * * *

 

Prichard was considering his options.  He didn’t know if Dave Street knew what was going on or to what level he might be involved.  It was possible Dave didn’t know anything, but he couldn’t depend on that.  If something was going to happen, he had to assume that Dave had already been contacted.  And if Rob was involved, as well as an engineer, he had to assume that phones and e-mail had been corrupted.  He had to go talk to Dave personally—and soon, as Nick had instructed. 

Prichard wondered how Dave would react.  He tried to think about what he would do in a similar situation.  The VP didn’t like to walk into meetings or conversations without knowing the probable outcome.  He liked to be prepared, and that had helped him out on more than one occasion.  But in this case, he had no relevant experience to bring to bear on the situation.  And time was running out. 

As he grabbed his hard hat and safety goggles and headed for the door, Prichard considered that meeting with Dave in the control room might not be the best course of action.  As vice president, he was very visible and right now he didn’t want to be seen near the control room.  That might alert someone who was watching.  Of course, the security computer could track him anywhere in the plant, but he’d be less conspicuous meeting Dave somewhere else.  Going back to his desk, he picked up his phone and dialed the number for the shift manager. 

Dave answered on the first ring.  “This is the shift manager, Street,” he said immediately. 

He sounded to Prichard like he was on edge.  “Dave, this is Prichard.”

“Yes, sir.  What can I do for you?”  Dave was expecting to be contacted by whoever sent him the note about his family. 

“Just spending some time in the plant doing some equipment walk-downs.  I like to do this on backshifts,” he lied, in case someone was listening.  “I’m down by the component cooling water heat exchangers.  We have a leak on the inlet to the 1-1 heat exchanger.  I wonder if you could come down here and look at it with me.”

Dave didn’t want to leave his desk.  He was still expecting a call but didn’t know if this was the one.  “I’ll send my senior control operator down there to look at it with you.”

Prichard had anticipated that response.  “No, I really think this is something you need to see.”

Dave had no choice now.  The site vice president had asked him to personally to look at something, and he knew he had to go.  Reluctantly, he said, “Yes, sir.  I’ll be right down.”

“Thank you.”  Prichard hung up and began the short walk through the turbine building and down to the CCW heat exchangers.  He’d have to hustle, because Dave was much closer to the equipment than he was. 

Prichard picked the heat exchanger room because it was relatively quiet and a closed room that nobody just walked through.  He’d know if someone came into the room while he was in there talking with Dave.  So they could talk in relative privacy.

As Prichard headed across the turbine building deck, Dave walked out in the control room to the unit supervisor’s desk.  “Bob, I’m going to take a walk in the plant.  You’ve got it for awhile,” he said, referring to overall command and control of both units should something happen.

Bob, the Unit 1 supervisor, acknowledged with a simple, “Okay.”  He turned to his computer and logged himself in as the person with command and control.  “You going to be gone long?”

“No,” Dave answered.  “I just want to go check something out.  I should be back in ten or fifteen minutes.”

“Okay.  I’ve got it.”

With that, Dave put on his hard-hat and safety glasses and left the control room.  He got into the elevator just outside the control room and pressed the button for the 85-foot elevation, several floors below him.  This was ground floor for the turbine building.  The CCW heat exchangers were just outside the elevator.  As he got off the elevator and walked to the door of the heat exchanger room, he saw Prichard walking quickly down the hallway toward him. 

Meeting up with the vice president outside the room, Dave said, confused, “I assumed you were in the heat exchanger room when you called me.” 

“Let’s go inside.  I want to show you something,” Prichard said, using his key card to open the door to the room.  They didn’t have much time.  The security computer would pick up that he and the shift manager had entered the room.  If someone was watching, the odds were high they’d see a security rover in a few minutes.

Once inside, Prichard looked around to make sure they were alone.  The room was cool because of the cold seawater coursing through two heat exchangers the size of small tanker trucks.  But at least it was relatively quiet. 

Satisfied that they were alone, he asked, “Have you heard from Kay tonight?”

Dave blanched.  He didn’t want to believe that Prichard was the guy he’d expected to hear from, but here he was and he’d asked about Kay. 

“You bastard!  What have you done with her?”  With an effort, he suppressed an urge to reach out and grab the other man.  He tensed but hesitated.

“Hold on!” Prichard said.  “Apparently you haven’t spoken with her tonight?”

Dave was shaking.  “What the hell is going on?”  He needed information and someone to tell him the truth, and he didn’t have either right now.  “You know I haven’t.  If you’ve hurt her . . .”

That removed all doubt from Prichard’s mind.  Dave had just confirmed that his wife and kids were, in fact, in harm’s way.  Prichard needed to get Dave on his side now.  This could take a bit of doing, and the clock was ticking.  Nick was going to call back soon.

“Get hold of yourself!  Of course I don’t have her.  I’m on your side.  Has someone contacted you about her?” Prichard asked.

Dave looked back and forth at Prichard’s eyes.  He desperately wanted to confide in someone.  Seeing no deception in his eyes, the shift manager relaxed and decided to trust him.  In a rush, Dave told his vice president about the e-mail and phone call.

Prichard was past being stunned by these events tonight.  “Okay.  We don’t have a lot of time.  I need you to do something.  You remember that guy from NeXus you met the other day?  The one running the force-on-force drill?”

“What does he have to do with my wife?” Dave asked, his heart still racing.

“He needs to get into the plant, and he’s coming in through the circulating water tunnel.”

“What?” Dave almost shouted.  “That’s not possible.  What the hell’s going on?”

Prichard gave him a short rundown of Nick’s plan for entering the plant.  He also told him the FBI’s instructions, at least as relayed by Marti.  It was important for Dave to know at least that much in case someone challenged him. 

Dave listened to Prichard and then repeated it to make sure he had it right.  “You want me to go to half load and shut down a circulator, then come back and open the water-box and let some guy I don’t really know, into the plant, with no security credentials, badges, or approval?”

“Yes.”

Dave looked at the VP with exasperation on his face.  “Is this for real?”

“He’s here at my request, Dave.  You’re going to have to trust me on this one.  Okay?”

“I guess it’ll have to be.  I’m not sure I have a lot of choice.  How will I know when he gets there?”

“I have no idea.  But in the meantime, we need to get the pump shut down and drain the tunnel.”

“What are we going to tell the FBI?” Dave asked, not unreasonably.

Prichard replied, “This is still our plant.  They aren’t here and we are.  This is what we need to do.”

Dave was relieved to have someone to talk to about all this.  “What about the people who have Kay and the kids?  They gave me instructions not to change load.  What do we do about that?”

Prichard could see the stress Dave was under.  “We’ll have to play some of this by ear.  I don’t have all the answers.  But time is of the essence right now.  We need to move.”

Dave wasn’t convinced.  “I understand, but this is still a nuclear power plant.  We don’t just ramp down to fifty percent power without a procedure and process in place.  We don’t do things that way, and you know that!”

Prichard was growing annoyed.  They pounded the use of procedures into these guys, but he also knew that Dave knew them backwards and forwards.  He knew Dave knew how to ‘operate’ the plant, and could do so, without procedures, if need be.  “I appreciate your responsibility to the plant.  But now I’m telling you . . . ramp down and take that circulator off line!  This is not open for discussion!”

Dave thought about it a moment.  He knew he needed help and couldn’t just sit by while someone destroyed the nuclear power plant.  He couldn’t do much about Kay and the kids but had to trust that they’d be all right.  He had some measure of control over the plant, and that was what he’d have to work with for now.  He was still very upset, but thankful there was a plan.  He was action-oriented and always felt better doing something.

“Okay,” Dave said.  “I’ll have to figure out something to tell the unit supervisor.  He’s going to want to check with the auxiliary operator at the Intake.  He’ll know we don’t have a problem with the screens.”

“Just get the thing shut down and do it quickly!” Prichard commanded.

“What about Kay and my kids?” he asked again, hoping for some kind of answer this time.

“Nick said to tell you he’ll take care of them.  I don’t know how he intends to do that, but if Nick says he’ll take care of them, he will.  As for the FBI, if we tell them the screen differential pressure is going up and we have to shut down a circ water pump, they have no choice but to believe us.  We can make this happen.” 

Prichard was getting nervous.  They’d been talking for several minutes.

Just then the door to the room opened and an armed security officer entered. 

“So, you’ll get that leak put in the corrective action system tonight?” Prichard said to Dave, in a voice loud enough for the security officer to hear.

Dave looked at Prichard and read the concern in his eyes.  He looked over at the security officer who was approaching them in a deliberate, almost menacing way.  Dave decided the best thing to do was to back up his boss.

“Yes, sir.  I’ll do that right away.”

“Excellent.  Then I think I may go home,” Prichard said, looking hard at Dave.  He acknowledged the security officer with a nod, went out into the hallway and headed back to his office. 

Dave followed him out, leaving the security officer in the room, looking around.  Once in the hallway, Dave turned the opposite way from Prichard’s path and headed back to the elevator and the control room on the 140-foot elevation. 

The security officer was told at the beginning of the shift to be on the lookout for anyone who might talk with the shift manager.  The whole shift had been briefed on that.  They were told that there was a ‘fitness-for-duty’ issue with the shift manager that couldn’t be discussed.  They didn’t know if he’d been drinking, was on drugs, or if he was having a nervous breakdown.  All they knew was that they’d been told to keep an eye on him.  The security officer had been around the plant for years and knew Dave Street in passing.  He thought he’d always seemed like a decent enough sort of guy, even for an operator.  But orders were orders, even if they were a little goofy.  Still, he didn’t think that applied to Street talking with the site vice president.  He was due for a break in about twenty minutes.  He’d go back to the break room in the security building and get his coffee and inform the watch commander then.  He didn’t think the encounter with Street and Prichard was significant enough to call in immediately.

 

CHAPTER 39

 

On his way to the airport, Pete picked up his satellite phone and dialed a number.  The signal bounced it off a satellite and back down to the team leader, somewhere in the hills behind the plant.  “Red Two, this is Mother.  Copy?”

Some static, then he heard a quiet voice say, “This is Red Two, Mother.  On line and in position.”

“Red Two.  Do you have eyes on the prize?”

“Copy that.  Count six bad guys, weapons and gear.  Looks well organized.  Military gear.  On the small ridge just northeast of the plant, as expected.” 

Pete had his team deployed just above the position they thought the bad guys would opt for.  If the bad guys had the report Nick had put together, it stood to reason Jansen had his guys there too.  Nick and Pete assumed Jansen would have his boys begin their assault from close to the station.  They had to assume Jansen had the means to divert security personnel’s attention away from his people at a specified time. 

Pete had moved their guys into place earlier in the evening, just after the sun set, fast-roping down from a stealth helo a few klicks back and humping it in from there.  It was a nasty trip with lots of thickets and steep hills.  But it was the best way in if they wanted to remain undetected.  Nick’s team members were all ex-SF; and while moving around in this dense underbrush wasn’t easy, it was achievable. 

They were now dug in up hill and behind Jansen’s team.  With night scopes, weapons, explosives, and flash-bangs, they were ready.  Unlike Jansen’s team, they didn’t need to bring heavy explosives with them.  They were a kill squad and were prepared to move fast and light.

“Red Two.  Change of plans.  Take your go order directly from Red One.  Repeat, await go order from Red One, and then execute as arranged.”  Pete was supposed to be the one controlling the team in the field, but he now had to get to Orange County.  Nick was Red One and would have to give them the go order—if he survived what he was going to attempt to do.

“Copy that, Mother.  Red Two out.”  Then silence.  

A marine layer was hanging just off the coast, coming in.  Red Two knew fog would make the mission more hazardous.  It’d be harder to see, and the cold, wet fog would make things slippery.  He was hoping this would go down before that happened.

 

CHAPTER 40

 

Once back to the control room, Dave called the unit supervisor into his office.

“Bob, we need to shut down the 1-1 main circulating water pump.  We’re having some problems with vibration on it, and the screens appear to be fouling.”

“That’s odd.  We haven’t gotten any alarms either on vibration or differential pressure across the screens.  Let me get in touch with Henry at the Intake and have him check it out.” 

“I’m okay if you check with Henry later, but I want the pump off line now.  We’ve been looking at this for the last few nights.  I’m surprised you didn’t get a turnover on it,” he lied.  “We need a rapid power reduction.  I want that pump off-line in thirty minutes.”

“The Power Control guys in San Francisco aren’t going to like this.  At least give me a few minutes to check out the pump and screens.”  As the unit supervisor, Bob was responsible for Unit 1, and he prided himself on knowing the status of his plant.  He had a hard time believing there was a problem of this magnitude that he didn’t know about. 

Dave knew this was an improbable situation, but it was all he could think of in a short time.  He recognized he’d have to pull rank to get Bob to do it. 

“As I said, this is something we’ve been watching for the last few days.  This is your first graveyard, but I’ve been here for a few nights now.  Every minute we waste arguing about it is going to do damage to the pump.  End of discussion.  Take the unit to half load and secure that circulator.”

Bob wasn’t happy at all.  He and Dave had always gotten along well.  He could tell Dave wasn’t exactly thrilled to be there tonight and thought he was probably just tired, having already worked several night shifts.  But Dave was the boss.  Bob would have to discuss this with the guy he took the watch from and find out why he wasn’t told about a possible problem with that pump.  That would come later. 

“Okay, Dave.  Do you want to be in on the briefing?” he asked as he normally would when conducting a briefing for his operators on a sudden change in plant status. 

“No.  I’ve got some phone calls to make.  Just have that pump offline no later than thirty minutes from now.”

As Bob walked out into the control room to brief his team, Dave suddenly realized that Bob would want to make a plant-wide announcement to let all the watch-standers out in the plant know that the power level was going to be reduced.  He felt his blood pressure go up immediately.  That would give away their plans.  Whoever was watching him would know.  But it couldn’t be helped.  A power plant is a complicated thing to run and run safely.  No matter what he was doing for Prichard, he still had to do it with some measure of safety.  Reluctantly, he had to let Bob do it the way he’d been trained to. 

Sure enough, five minutes later, after Bob briefed the control room watch-standers, he made a PA announcement about the change in power level and plant conditions.  It was 12:29 a.m. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Out in the brush near the intake, I could hear a PA announcement being made, but I could barely make out what was being said.  Had this been daytime, I never would have heard it. I got on my phone and called Prichard.

“I assume that announcement was related to shutting down the circ water pump?”

“That’s correct,” Prichard confirmed.

“Good job,” I told him.  “If he has the pump off line in twenty minutes, I’ll be in the water box sixty minutes later.  Have Dave open the east water box hatch at 0200.”

“I suppose it’s foolish to ask you to reconsider this plan,” Prichard said one last time.

“If you have a better idea, now’s the time.”

Prichard said nothing.

“It’s too late to turn back now, anyway.  Plans are in place and we have no choice now but to see them through.”

“Okay.  I’ll tell Street.  And Nick?”

“Yes?”

“Good luck, man.” 

“Roger that,” I said and hung up.  I then dialed another number.  “Red Two, this is Red One.  Green light to proceed at 0200.”

“Copy that, Red One.  0200.  Out.”

I put my phone away and quickly moved down the embankment toward the water and the skiff still floating there up against the rocks, out of sight of the Intake security cameras.  One false step and I could lose my footing and plunge into the dark, icy cold water below.  There was no beach here.  I had to climb down the rock face and into the skiff.  The fog was getting thicker and the rocks were becoming dangerously slippery.  

CHAPTER 41

 

At 12:25 a.m., Jansen made a final call to a plant number.  Rob answered immediately.

“Everything set to go?” he asked Rob.

“Yes.  We’re ready.”  Rob was getting nervous.  This was serious business and not something to be taken lightly.  Things could go wrong—very wrong.  The upside was a lot of money. The downside was, well, unknown.  A nuclear power plant is a complicated machine.  Three stories tall, it looked particularly large and menacing tonight.  Hopefully, what they were attempting to do would be worth it.

Hearing some hesitation in Rob’s voice, Jansen said, “Don’t bail on me now.  Stick to the plan.  You got it?”

“I’m all right.  You just make sure you hold up your end!” Rob said, trying to hide his apprehension.  “What happens if Street doesn’t go along?” Rob’s breathing was becoming labored and he tried to hold down the gorge rising in his throat.  This had sounded like a good plan months ago, but now he wasn’t so sure.  It was starting to look too risky. But he was committed, and that realization suddenly made him nervous and wonder if there was a way out of this for him. 

“It’s your job to make sure he gets the message.  We’ll take care of the rest.” Jansen was getting pissed.  He didn’t like relying on people he hadn’t trained with.  Rob and this team from Waxman were unknowns to him.  He’d just have to work through it, but it was time to calm everyone down.  He needed Rob.

“I want you to calm down . . . right the fuck now!  We’re going to do this.  My men and I will do the heavy lifting.  You just do your part and everything will be fine.  Got that?”

Rob’s nerves were frayed. “I’ll be ready!  Remember, once we start this, there’s no turning back.” 

Just then, Jansen heard a plant PA announcement being made in the background.

“No!  He can’t do that! He’s ramping down!” Rob said more to himself than anyone else.  “I gotta go!” he said to Jansen, hanging up.

“Shit!” Jansen swore as he put his phone away.  Their plan called for the plant to be at full power.  With the plant at full power, the fear generated by the accident they had in mind would be at the maximum.  Besides that, it involved less activity in the plant, and he had a greater chance of controlling the situation and not having his men observed as they moved about the plant. 

Rob had been in on discussions with the FBI and helped them reach their decision to also hold power at 100 percent.  He wanted them to hold off any actions until morning.  By then, it would be too late for them to do anything.  But if they got wind that the plant was ramping down tonight, they might alter their plans and decide to do something before everything was ready.  He had to get to Street and stop him from doing this.  He went to his secure phone that didn’t register on the other end to show who was calling. Dave answered the phone almost immediately. 

“What the hell are you doing?” Rob practically screamed into the phone.  “I told you to hold at full power!”

Dave stared at the phone.  “Who is this?” he demanded.

“You know perfectly well who this is.  I’m the one calling the shots.  You will stay at 100 percent power, or else . . .”

Dave interrupted him because he didn’t want to hear the rest of that threat.  “We can’t stay at full power.  We have a problem with the screens and have to reduce to half load and secure a circ water pump.  The high tides have kicked up the kelp and it’s plugging the screens.” 

Dave thought the voice on the other end of the phone sounded familiar, but the person seemed to be trying to alter his voice.  He just hoped his lie sounded convincing.  But he was getting pissed now and his natural assertive tendencies were coming out so he decided to take the initiative and said, “Even an idiot like you can appreciate that if we don’t act now, we may lose the circulator altogether.”

Rob was trying to think quickly.  He was immediately intimidated by Dave’s tone and accusation, and knew that wasn’t the position he wanted to be in.  He didn’t know the plant that well, but what Street was saying made sense to him. He’d heard about kelp and screen problems for years, especially in the winter.  He also knew enough to understand that if the PA announcement had been made, the plans were already set and the plant was probably already ramping down.  Shit! 

Rob gritted his teeth and said, “All right.  But 50 percent power.  No lower!  Do you understand what will happen to your wife and kids if you disobey me?”

With a lump in his throat, Dave said, “I understand, you piece of shit!”

“Good.  Don’t disappoint me.  I’ll call you later with further instructions.” 

With that, Rob hung up.  Damn!  This wasn’t supposed to happen.  Okay . . . okay . . . get control.  Their plans should still be okay at 50 percent power—if nothing else goes wrong. 

Dave hung up the phone, realizing that whoever it was, had heard the announcement about the ramp down in power.  Whoever just made that phone call was on site.

CHAPTER 42

 

THE SEA WATER INTAKE STRUCTURE

 

I moved through the brush, down the side of the cliff to the water’s edge, as silently as I could.  I doubted if anyone was around to hear me, but I didn’t want to chance it.  It came naturally to me from years of doing it, and there was simply no reason to make noise. 

I got to the water’s edge without falling in, though there were moments that challenged me.  The terrain was steep and slippery, and I had to use the prickly brush as handholds.  I was glad I was wearing gloves or my hands would be torn up pretty bad by now.  I was about 10 feet from the skiff where the Old Man waited with several duffle bags full of gear.  I worked my way over to it, tossed in the small grip I was carrying, and gingerly stepped into the little boat, not wanting to overturn it and dump us, and our gear, into the frigid Pacific Ocean. 

“Good to see you again, Old Man,” I said as if we were meeting over a beer and a burger instead of preparing to break into a secure nuclear power facility.  “You still up for this?” 

I was still not thrilled about the idea of having the Old Man come along, but I needed his knowledge of the inside of the power plant.  I only knew some basics about how the plant worked, and I was going to need more than that to have any chance of being successful.  Once inside, I’d need to move fast, and I didn’t have time to look around and guess where I was going.  I wasn’t an expert on the plant layout.  He was and we both knew it. 

“I’m okay.  Don’t worry about me,” the Old Man replied.  “Hey, I brought along a Thermos with some hot coffee in it.  I thought it might be cold out here.  Guess I was right!” 

He handed me a cup.  We both knew it was important to get something warm inside us before we started our dive.  The warmth wouldn’t last too long, but my guess was we weren’t going to be in the water long, anyway.  The liquid was hot, dark, and strong and tasted good as it went down.  It provided a short moment to calm our nerves.  The Old Man was smart.  I wouldn’t have thought of this.

As we sipped the hot coffee we pulled the gear out of the duffels.  We each had wet suits, buoyancy control vests, regulators, fins, boots, masks, weights, digital dive computers, and tanks. Wet suits come in various thicknesses.  Normally we’d be using ones that are several millimeters thick for cold-water dives such as this one.  But the ones we brought were only 1mm thick to allow us to slip between the bar racks more easily and get inside the circulating water pump.  So staying warm could be a challenge.

The fog, while adding to the cold, also provided us some measure of protection from prying eyes.  We were just outside the intake cove and around an outcropping of rocks.  It was doubtful that any security patrols would be out here tonight. With a threat situation, the station security posture would likely pull in a bit and stay closer to the plant itself.  Cameras would be used for the more remote locations, but I knew there wasn’t one here. 

I looked at the Breitling watch my dad had given me when I got my Green Beret.  It wasn’t a dive watch but it was good to ninety meters, which was significantly deeper than we were planning on going.  “We have about twenty minutes to get suited up and in the water,” I said quietly to the Old Man. “They should have the 1-1 circ water pump shut down by then.”

“Okay.  Remember, we need to be mindful of the backflow,” the Old Man warned.  “There’s a lot of water in that tunnel, and it’s all going to flow back out here when they shut the pump down.”

“What do we do about that?” I asked, as I unpacked my gear, doing a quick mental inventory.

“Make sure you tie yourself off or you’ll likely get swept back out to sea.”

I turned and smiled at the Old Man, though the dark prevented him from seeing it.  It was clear to me he was going to be invaluable on this mission.

“More of a concern to me is do we have someone on the inside ready to let us out of the water-box?” he said with concern in his voice.  “That’s one nasty place to be trapped.”

“That’s the plan.  I guess we’ll find out soon enough.”

Besides the dive gear, I’d packed some rope, two watertight flashlights, two pistols and extra magazines.  We also had an extra air tank each.  By my estimations, and depending on how much air we used up getting through the pump, we’d need the extra capacity to stay alive in the tunnel until the hatch was opened and we could get out to fresh air. 

I looked around and located the laser torch I’d brought, which was specifically designed for underwater use.  It was light and portable and could cut through metal underwater much quicker than a gas torch.  Designed for Special Forces, it wasn’t something you could find on the market but was key to covert underwater jobs such as this.  I had access to such gear from time to time. 

We each finished our coffee and put the Thermos and cups aside.  We wouldn’t be coming out the way we were going in, so it didn’t much matter what we did with them. 

I took a small package from the bag I’d brought with me and opened it carefully. 

“What’s that?” the Old Man asked as he saw how gently I handled it.

“It’s what we call a ‘distraction.’  It’s a remote-controlled charge that I’ll place in the back of the boat by the motor and the gas tank.  Once I activate it, my team can detonate it.  Should make a pretty good show and draw their attention down here.  We’ll be long gone by then.”

We each suited up with our dive gear, put on our weight belts, booties, hoods, and inflatable vests.  Tanks were next, then fins, and finally gloves.  I checked out the Old Man’s regulator and gear to make sure it was all in working order.  I patted him on the back.  The time for encouragement and bravado—false or otherwise—was over.  We were getting down to business.  The Old Man then checked out my gear.  Just standard safety precautions, which almost seemed absurd, given what we were about to attempt.  But I like to take the little things off the table when I can. 

“Ready to go?” I asked the Old Man.

“Ready as I’ll ever be.  Let’s do it.”

I checked my watch again.  We were right on time, assuming Dave was able to uphold his end.  I put on my mask, put in my mouthpiece, and glanced over at the Old Man doing the same.  I bent down, held my facemask, and quietly slipped over the side of the boat and into the black, unfriendly water. 

It was much colder than I’d expected.  Given that we had on only thin wet suits, my body immediately started to lose its warmth, but we had no choice.  We were counting on being out of the water in ten minutes or less. 

I had a bungee cord stretched around my tank.  This was a good way to ‘talk’ to another diver.  All I had to do was snap it and the sound it made as it slapped the tank was enough to get another diver’s attention.  Sound travels well underwater. 

Once in the water, I turned on my flashlight, snapped the bungee cord twice, and waited until the Old Man swam over to me.  I gave him a thumbs up, a standard diver gesture to ask if everything was all right.  He returned the signal.  We then dropped down about fifteen feet and started swimming around the rocky outcropping where we were hiding, and into the intake cove. 

It didn’t take us long to cover the short distance to our destination.  I knew we are getting close because I could start to feel the current pull us in, as the huge circulating water pumps took suction from the bay we were in, pumping an enormous amount of water all the way up the hill to the plant. The pull was noticeable but not too bad.  At least it was pulling us in the right direction.  But, of course, this meant that the pump was still running.

I looked down at the iridium dial on my watch.  It was about at the thirty-minute mark—the time I expected the pump to be shut down, if Prichard had been successful with the shift manager.  I swam a little quicker to get to the thick bar racks.  Based on the Old Man’s warning, we needed to get tied off pretty soon.  I looked around to see if the Old Man was with me.  He was.  Moving as quickly as we could underwater, I got out the rope, tied one end to the bar racks, and looped the other end through a carabineer on my weight belt.  Then I did the same for the Old Man. 

One more look at my watch.  Just as I did, I could hear the noise level change, even under water.  It was quieter.  Suddenly, the current stopped pulling us in.  I looked at the Old Man and gestured for him to hold on.  I didn’t need to.  He’d heard it, too; and he, more than I, knew precisely what that meant.  Just then the current reversed and started to push against us, heading out to sea, instead of pulling us in.  I had a good grip on the bar racks and hoped like hell The Old Man did, too.  I didn’t want to have to trust the rope.  If we became disconnected, we’d get swept well away from the intake and this mission would be scrubbed. 

Since the tunnel was draining, that meant Prichard was successful, and that, at least, was encouraging.  The Old Man had forewarned me that this would last for several minutes. The effect of the backwashing was that the water coming back down the tunnel pushed seaweed and small fish off the screens and back out through the bar racks.  As we clung to the bar racks, the water around us got cloudy from all the accumulated debris that the screens collected.  Because the other circulating water pump in the adjoining bay was still running, much of this was going to be sucked up in its suction.  I didn’t know if that was a problem or not. 

I hadn’t anticipated the water being so cloudy.  If the reduced visibility didn’t improve soon, it’d make cutting the bar racks more difficult.  Fortunately, after a few minutes I felt the back surge slow and saw less debris clouding the water. 

I reached into the equipment bag strapped to my belt and took out the highly proprietary military laser torch.  I’d been trained on how to use it but didn’t have a lot of experience with it.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the cold water was starting to numb my fingers.  My gloves were also thin to allow me the flexibility to work the gear.  It’s surprising how quickly cold can debilitate you.  In northern latitudes, where the seawater was actually below freezing, if you fell in without the proper protection you’d be dead before someone could pull you out two minutes later.  I happened to know that because I’d trained off the coast of Scotland putting together a take-back strategy for an oilrig.  I hated the cold. 

Despite the temperature, I was able to get the torch set up and turned on.  A bright red light shot forward like an angry demon, vaporizing the water around it.  I guided it toward the bar racks. 

Within minutes, I had cut through two of the huge bars, providing a hole sufficiently big enough to let the two of us swim through.  I turned off the laser and put it back in the bag.  I might need it again—perhaps to get out of the tunnel. 

I looked at my regulator to check on my air supply.  We were okay but needed to get moving.  I looked back at the Old Man and just nodded.  I turned back and worked my way through the hole, careful to avoid ripping my wet suit or catching my gear on anything. 

I made it through easily enough.  Little successes are often encouraging; though I knew the challenging parts were yet to come.  Once through, I turned and motioned for the Old Man to follow me.  He, too, got through without incident.  We were now both passed the bar racks.  I unhooked us from the rope but coiled it back up—keeping it in ready reserve.

A few feet ahead of us were the traveling screens.  The Old Man told me that part of the process for turning off the circulating water pump involved shutting down the screens.  So the screens stand there, motionless in the dark water.  I swam down to the bottom of them.  According to the prints, the screens do not go all the way to the bottom.  Most everything the station personnel are worried about that could be in water was buoyant and tended to float up more toward the top half of the screens.  So room was left at the bottom to ensure the screens didn’t catch on something heavy that may have gotten through the bar racks.  I was hoping this space was enough for us to slide under and get into the suction of the massive pump.  According to the prints, this should be possible.  There were clearly a lot of fail points to this plan. 

At the bottom of the screens, I found that the space between the screen and the bottom runner was not as big as I’d hoped.  My only chance of getting through was to take my tanks off and try to wiggle underneath it.  I snapped the bungee cord to make sure the Old Man knew where I was.  He was only two feet away, but visibility was still pretty bad and it would be easy to get disoriented in the cloudy water.  He moved over to me and saw what I was doing.  I assumed he was going to figure out why.  It didn’t take him long.  I saw him giving me a thumbs up, indicating that he understood what I was trying to do. 

I rolled over onto my back and, with my tanks off, tried to slide underneath the screen headfirst.  It was a tight fit and I would have had a much harder time if I were any bigger around.  It was at times like this that I was glad I wasn’t a bulkier guy.  It took a minute of wiggling, but I was able to make it underneath, with my tanks in tow. 

On the other side of the screen, it got even darker, causing my heart to start to beat a bit harder.  I was exerting myself and I found myself in a closed space that could clearly take my life if I wasn’t careful.  I’d been put through a battery of physical tests to see if I could handle tight spaces, and passed all the exams, but I couldn’t say I enjoyed them.  If anything, confined spaces like this were what I struggled with the most.  So it was natural that I worried now about the Old Man. I didn’t know how he was with confined spaces.  He hadn’t been through the same kind of training I’d had, so he may not really know.  Sometimes it’s like that.  You didn’t know how you would do until you were tested.  Some people adapt well and quickly.  I hoped the Old Man was one of them.

I looked down at my regulator again.  [Tick, tock. _] I couldn’t waste a lot of time worrying about it now.  We’d find out soon enough as I saw the Old Man follow my lead.  With his tanks off, he wiggled on his back and moved under the screen.  I kept my flashlight on him through the still-murky water.  Having that [‘light at the end of the tunnel’_] often helped the next guy by letting him know he wasn’t alone.  That expression would be put to the test before we were done tonight.

It took the Old Man a little longer than it took me, but he finally emerged on my side of the screen, where he looked around, saw me, and gave me another thumbs up. If the Old Man had a problem with small, tight spaces, he wasn’t showing it.  Besides, it was too late to do anything about it now. 

Once we were both on the inside of the screens, we put our tanks back on and checked our air gauges.  We were exerting ourselves, which caused us to use up our air more quickly than we’d wanted, and we had a long way to go yet. 

I reached over to the Old Man and put one hand on his arm in the dark cage we were in.  I didn’t bother with a thumbs up at this point.  I just squeezed his arm, letting him know I was there with him.  I didn’t know if he needed it, but it never hurt to take care of your team.  He looked over at me and nodded his head slowly in acknowledgment.  That also gave us a few seconds to slow our breathing to conserve our air.  So far, so good.

From what I could see, we were in a man-made area that I assumed was the suction plenum of the pump.  You could look at prints and all the pictures you wanted to, but often times the real thing looked different.  In this particular case, it didn’t matter because I couldn’t see much of anything anyway. The water was still very murky, and visibility was limited, flashlights notwithstanding.  We’d have to go with a mental picture of where we were.  I took the lead and started swimming up, away from the direction we had just come. Swimming was a misnomer.  I really just sort of pulled myself along as best I could.  With my light shining ahead of me, I soon came across the smooth metal of the pump impeller.  It was a bit of a surreal sight.  The impeller was a huge spiral that wound upward.  I reached out and touched it gingerly, as if to satisfy myself that it really wasn’t moving.  I only hoped it stayed that way.  If the pump started right now, I’d be crushed inside this impeller.  That was another cheery thought that lingered briefly in my subconscious.  I’d feel a lot better when we were safely through and on the other side. 

From the schematics we looked at before we came, I knew it was about twelve feet high, and I’d estimated I’d have to bend around the impeller at least twice before I came out on top.  If I got stuck, I’d run out of air and drown.  In the back of my mind, I kept hearing Prichard saying it can’t be done.  I thought of all the times I’d heard that before.  Bullshit!  With grim resolve, I put that out of my head.  Never quit, my dad would tell me when I was small.  Just don’t quit. 

Once again I took off my tanks, only this time I also took off my weight belt and my satchel with the gear in it.  I tied it all off to a short length of rope to keep it close to me but allowing me room to maneuver.  Then I dropped the rest of the rope down so that the Old Man could tie off to it.  The idea was that I would pull him up and along once I got to the other side.  It was like mountain climbing.  The first guy would free climb and put in pitons for the next guy to use—something I learned to do in the Ranger course.  That was the plan, anyway.  But first, I had to get to the other side. 

I started to ease my way up the serpentine impeller.  It was tight and cramped.  I had to let my air tanks dangle to free up my hands, but I had only so much air hose from the tanks to my mouth.  I had to bite down hard on the mouthpiece to keep the tanks in tow, which tired my jaw quickly.  It was as if I was dragging the tanks with my mouth, which was exactly what I was doing.

The cold water was starting to affect my motor skills, and I felt my feet and fingers getting stiff.  I had to bend myself around the shaft, which would be hard to do warm, let alone in this numbing cold.  But the water was acting as a cushion that let my natural buoyancy move me along and upward.  The impeller was just big enough to allow me to wrap around it and, with significant effort, work my way up and through it.  I had to push and pull myself up as best I could.  If I had more fear of small spaces, this would have been my undoing.  I was underwater, breathing from a hose, and I had nowhere to go but up a spiral shaft. 

Despite the cold, I could feel myself sweating.  The myth of the Green Berets was that we weren’t afraid of anything.  I knew better.  The Green Beret training could be counted on to find a man’s weak spots, and every man had them.  But rather than destroy him with that, the knowledge was used to help him find ways to overcome them.  Once you did that, you became a very capable and dangerous warrior.  A brave man isn’t the one who knows no fear.  A brave man is the one who knows fear but continues on in spite of it. 

A few minutes later, the pump impeller opened to yet another gloomy, wide space.  I’d made it through!  I did what they said couldn’t be done.  However, I was still underwater, it was still cold and dark, and I was running low on air.  But I was through.  And for the briefest of moments, I let myself feel damn good about that.  Now the Old Man needed to get through the impeller as soon as possible, and he’d need both his hands to do that.

I put my tanks back on and secured my equipment to my belt.  I then gave two quick tugs on the rope to signal that it was okay for the Old Man to move next.

I didn’t have much to secure myself to, so I couldn’t provide a lot of pull on the rope.  All I could do was to pull gently and hope it was enough.  As I lay there in the dark, watery, potential grave, I gave in to a moment of regret again at having brought him along.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want him here, but that I felt I’d put him in jeopardy and that wasn’t a good thing to do.  But the decision had been made, and I needed to stop re-hashing it.

I put a strain on the rope to help the Old Man up and through the pump impeller.  Just then the rope stopped moving.  My heart missed a beat, thinking the Old Man got wedged in there somewhere.  But then it went lose again, and a couple of minutes later, I saw a head peek up out of the impeller.  I had to give the Old Man credit.  None of this was easy.  I was impressed with his abilities.  I’d have to tell him that next chance I got.

Once we were both up, we took some precious, not to be wasted, time and got all our gear accounted for.  We swam on for another thirty feet and then surfaced.  It felt like we were on a beach, coming out of the water.  We were now in the tunnel—and behind schedule.  Our air was depleting rapidly.  I flashed my light around and, despite being out of the water, resisted taking off my mouthpiece.  I had to remember that there was no breathable air in there.  The tunnel was pitch black and empty but I heard a distinctive noise, which was unsettling.  I looked around and couldn’t see anything that would be making the eerie sound.  I didn’t know if something was coming my way, but it sounded like it.  I stood still for a moment, debating what to do, but nothing came.  The sound was constant and was not varying.  It then occurred to me that there was still a circulating water pump running, and the sound I heard was the flow in the other tunnel.  It was good to know, but I just hadn’t been expecting it.

The tunnel itself was a huge rectangular space.  The sides, top, and floor were coated with some kind of plastic epoxy paint that was supposed to be slippery so barnacles and mollusks couldn’t cling to it or grow on it.  The coating must have worked well, because there wasn’t much growth—at least on the floor of the tunnel.  The down side to this modern miracle was that it made the floor very slippery to us, too.  But with our fins off, our rubber boots gave us some good footing. That was a good thing, because we needed to get to the condenser water box—somewhere up ahead of us—and out.

There was some air in the tunnel because the operators had opened a vacuum breaker to allow the water to run back out when the pump was secured.  But it wasn’t a lot of air for a space this size, and the odds of it being particularly breathable air were slim.  Decay from the barnacles and other sea life would make what little air there was putrid in short order.  It wasn’t something I wanted to have to find out.  So we kept our regulators on and in our mouths, grabbed only the equipment we needed now, and headed up toward the water-box and our next challenge. 

The tunnel was several hundred feet long, with an incline of ten percent or so, making it a difficult climb.  The weight of our gear was more than I’d expected, and carrying it was slowing us down.  We’d lost the buoyancy the water provided. Tick, tock.

Several long minutes later we emerged at a ninety-degree bend in the tunnel, where it turned and headed straight up and into what I assumed was the condenser water-box.  We’d made it.  But I saw no light other than what my flashlight provided.  I looked up and scanned the overhead.  I could see a wall of small-diameter tubes through which the saltwater was forced when the circulator was running.  On either side of this water-box was a hatch, some twenty feet up.  Much to my chagrin, neither hatch was open—and there was no hand wheel on either.  They were just round, smooth surfaces.  There was no way they could be opened from the inside.  It was never anticipated there would be people on the inside with the hatch shut.

A ladder was attached to the wall underneath each hatch.  This must be used during maintenance periods to allow people to get out of the tunnel through the water box.  We’d have to climb up one of these ladders to get out, but there was no point in doing that just yet.  Hanging onto the slippery ladder waiting for the hatch to be opened would only cause more exertion for us, and oxygen was a precious commodity right now.  Besides that, I didn’t know which hatch would be opened.  So we opted to stay down below, conserve our strength and energy, and hope someone would open a hatch soon. 

Time was running out.  More accurately, our air was running out.  The Old Man’s breathing was becoming labored.  This had been far more of an exertion for him than for me.  I checked his regulator and saw he was well into the red zone and had only a minute or two of air left.  I had about five minutes left on mine.  We would have to buddy breathe if necessary.  That would draw down our air reserves even faster.

My watch read 0158.  I looked up at the two hatches that remained firmly locked in place.

CHAPTER 43

 

Dave looked at the clock.  It was almost 2 a.m.  He needed to get down to the condenser and open the hatch on the ridiculously slim chance that these guys Prichard told him about were able to make it through.  But what about his wife?  Whoever had been sending him instructions hadn’t contacted him again, and he hadn’t heard anything from Prichard saying his wife and kids were okay.  He was starting to believe it didn’t matter.  His cards had been dealt, and the only thing to do now was to play them out.  He had to trust that Prichard, and whoever was working with him, would be able to help his family.  All Dave could do was to help the men trying to get into his power plant. 

The unit supervisor stuck his head in Dave’s office.  “The 1-1 circ water pump is shut down, we opened the vacuum breaker and drained the tunnel, the screens are shut down—as ordered,” Bob said.  “The power control guys are not happy campers about this.”

“Thanks, Bob. I’m going to take a tour.  You’re in charge,” Dave said, moving to the door and ignoring the crack about power control. Without waiting for a reply, Dave hurried out of the control room and onto the turbine deck.  The condenser water box was down on the 85-foot level.  He’d normally ride the elevator down, but this time he walked quickly across the turbine building and literally ran down three flights of stairs.  He figured it would be quicker that way and he didn’t want to spend any of what he assumed was little time left, waiting for an elevator.  Time was a precious commodity now.

It was quiet at that time of night, meaning there were no employees other than his operators and an occasional security officer roaming the plant.  That was good, because Dave wasn’t sure how he would explain what the hell he was doing trying to get into the water box. 

It was 0200 straight up.  On his way down, he realized that he’d need a tool to get the hatch open.  So instead of going straight to the hatch, he hurried into an electrical switchgear room, whose door was at the bottom of the stairs he had just come down.  Inside, there were rows of huge mechanical circuit breakers, each one four feet wide by ten feet high.  The breakers provided power to the various huge motors inside the plant.  Off to one side of this room was an equipment shop. 

Dave ran over to this shop and flung open the door.  Come-alongs and various tools were meticulously hung on the walls.  His eyes quickly scan the room, looking for a wrench or other tool he could use as leverage to open the hatch.  He couldn’t locate any tools that might have helped him, but he did find a length of pipe about eighteen inches long and two inches in diameter.  It would have to do.  He was out of time.  He ran out of the switchgear room with the pipe in hand, and over to the condenser water box. 

The entire water box was painted green on the outside, meaning it was a system that had seawater in it.  Pipes painted blue had pure water in them, yellow had hydrogen gas, red had firewater, and so on.  This helped operators and maintenance workers more easily identify the various lines that ran throughout the power plant.  However, Dave knew the plant well and didn’t need the color-coding to help him find things.  Certainly not the main condenser, which was bigger than his house.  The condenser reached from the bottom of the turbines on the 140-foot elevation all the way down here to the 85-foot elevation and stretched from one end of the turbine building to the other.  It was a huge structure, as were most things in this power plant. 

It took Dave no more than ten seconds to get to the north half of the condenser, which was the one that the 1-1 circulating water pump fed, and located the water box hatches.  Each hatch had ‘dogs’ on it, which resembled huge wing nuts that clamped the hatch in place.  He was almost frantic now, either from the fear of being discovered by the security staff or his own operators, or from concern for the guys who were supposed to be on the other side of this hatch. 

He slipped the open end of the pipe over one of the dogs and tried to turn it counterclockwise.  It didn’t budge.  He knew they were put on tightly so the hatches wouldn’t leak, but he had to get it open.  He tried it again, and put his back into it this time.  It started to move!  He stopped to collect his breath, and then attacked it again.  This time it moved more.  He felt immediate relief.  Once started, he was able to loosen it all the way.  He then did this for the other three bolts dogging the hatch in place. 

Normally, this wouldn’t be done without a work order and a tag, ensuring the pump was off and everything was ready for the water box to be opened.  And there’d be a chemistry technician waiting to take a sample of the air inside, to make sure it was breathable.  That was ‘normal’.  This wasn’t.  He was past the notion of doing this by the book. 

The last fastener un-dogged, he opened the hatch and shined a light inside.  To his astonishment, two men were standing at the bottom of the ladder in wet suits, breathing through regulators, and carrying a bag of equipment.  One man looked weak and wobbly.  The other man seemed to be helping him up the ladder.  He couldn’t believe it.  Just thirty minutes earlier, this water box had been full of water with a circulator running.  It wasn’t possible for two guys to be standing where they were! 

As the guys got close to the top of the ladder, Dave reached in as far as he could to help them, careful not to stick his head inside the water box, knowing that it was probably an oxygen-deficient atmosphere.  He’d heard of men who had quickly succumbed to it and fallen in and died.  He grabbed hold of the first man and with considerable effort, pulled him up and out of the water box. The man was clearly weak.  Dave struggled to get him onto the grating near the hatch and laid him down.  He pulled the man’s facemask off and the regulator out of his mouth.  By the looks of it, he was an older man, ashen-faced.  The man immediately started to gasp for air, which turned into violent, racking coughs.  But he was breathing, which was a good thing, and the color slowly returned to his face.  That was something, anyway.

Dave turned and looked back at the hatch as the other man climbed out and onto the grating.  He, too, removed his mask and regulator and started to gulp in clean air.  Dave recognized him as Nick, the man he’d met in Prichard’s office after the drill the other day.  Dave looked at him in wonder; unable to conceal his unbridled respect for these two guys who somehow did what was supposedly impossible. 

CHAPTER 44

 

I was still breathing hard and thankful to be out of that water box.  I held out my hand to Dave, who took it tentatively and shook it.  

“Good to see you again, Dave.  Thanks for getting us out of there!” I said.

“How in sweet Jesus did you do that?  That just isn’t possible!”

“I guess it is, because we’re here,” I said as I collected our gear and closed the hatch again.  “There’s no time for explanations.  We need to get out of sight before Security finds us.” 

I reached down, grabbed the Old Man under his arms, and helped him to his feet.

“Hey, you okay, Old Man?” I asked with a smile on my face.

Breathing better now, the Old Man stabilized himself on his feet.  “I don’t ever want to do that again!” he said.  “I need to catch my breath, and I have a helluva headache, but I’m okay.”

I looked around at the massive components on this floor of the power plant while the Old Man rested for a moment.  Despite still being a bit wobbly, he appeared to be okay and started looking around to get his bearings.  He spotted the switchgear room, not knowing that’s where Dave had gotten his tool, pointed to it, and says, “Lets go in there and get out of sight.” 

I was impressed with the Old Man’s stamina, as well as his ability to make decisions under the current conditions.  We were two minutes away from being dead just moments ago.  Now he was leading us to a safe haven that he’d picked out. 

We all moved over there as quickly as we could, hauling our gear with us.  Dave had to open the door for us because it had a security card reader on it, like most doors in the plant.  Once inside, the Old Man spotted the maintenance room and we all headed over to it. 

The Old Man sat down on a gang-box.  Color was returning to his face, which made me feel a lot better.  He turned to Dave and said, “If I’m not mistaken, Security will be in here soon as this is a vital area and they’ll wonder what you’re doing in here.  We need to hide out for a bit, but you need to get back to the control room.”

Dave just looked at him.  “Who are you and what are you doing here?”  He knew a little about me, but nothing of this guy.

The Old Man started to get out of his wet suit and gear.  “Just call me a friend of Nick’s if that helps any.”

Dave knew all this was extremely unorthodox for a nuclear power plant.  We had just breached the security of his power plant, and he’d helped us do it.  I was sure he was wondering how all this was going to turn out, but I also knew he had other things on his mind—as did we. 

As I was getting out of my wet suit and piling my gear on the floor, Dave looked at me with pleading in his eyes.

“Do you know if my wife and kids are okay?  Prichard said you were going to help them . . .?” He wanted to believe we could help somehow.  He had to believe in something.  He needed hope.

I looked him square in the eyes and said, “I’ve got my best man working on it.  You have to trust me on this.  We’re going to do everything we can to get your family back for you.”

I could tell Dave didn’t know if he believed me or not, but it was better than nothing.  He was undoubtedly still in shock over what all was going on.  I could see by the look on his face that he wasn’t thinking too clearly, but we couldn’t afford to sit around and talk like this.  Security could be here soon, and we needed to avoid having them see us.

I grabbed Dave by the shoulders, as physical touch is always useful in connecting with someone.  “Look me in the eyes.  You need to believe that everything will be all right.  I promise.  Right now I need you back into the control room. Wait there for my instructions.  In case you didn’t know, the insider is Rob, your security manager.  We don’t know if the rest of the security force is tainted or not.  Until we know, we have to assume they are.”

Dave’s eyes went wide with amazement.  That was the voice on the phone.  He knew he’d recognized it!  But Rob?  How could that be?  He knew Rob.  He couldn’t be a bad guy.  As that thought settled in, another one crashed his brain. “Was he responsible for the death of Brenda Williams last weekend?”

“We really don’t know, but we have to assume he was involved somehow.”

We kept changing out of our wet suits as we talked.  It didn’t take us long to put on the slacks, shirts, and shoes we brought with us.  I gave the Old Man one of the Glock 19’s I’d brought in, which we tuck into our pants.  We loaded extra magazines in our pockets. 

Dave looked at the guns that were strictly prohibited in a nuclear facility.  He reasoned that if the security responders had weapons and at least some of them were no longer trustworthy, then these two guys being armed seemed like a good thing. “What do you want me to do?” he asked, now more in command of his faculties. 

“Just get back to the control room,” the Old Man told him again.  “Wait for our call.  We’ll call your restricted number.  What is it?”

“How do you know about that?” Dave asked.

“All control rooms have a number they don’t publish, used just by the operators so they can always get through to you if they have to.”

“It’s 3388 from any plant phone, and you guys are well informed.  People outside of ops don’t know about that.”  Dave looked like he was gaining confidence in us.

“One more thing,” I told him.  “I want you to call Marti Callahan.  She’s your NRC resident and should be in her office.  Tell her to meet us at . . . ” I looked at the Old Man, who finished my sentence for me, “ . . . the package boiler room in ten minutes.”

We were throwing a lot at Dave.  He was probably tempted to question how we knew Marti and how we knew where the package boiler room was.  Instead, as he watched us stow our dive gear behind one of the gang-boxes, he opted to keep his mouth shut for the time being and follow our instructions.  He really did need to get back to the control room.

“Make sure you call her from a plant phone and not from the control room, in case someone is monitoring those lines.  Now, lead us out of here.  If a security officer checks on you, it’ll look like you’re doing a tour.  Then get back to the control room.  We’ll be in touch,” I said.  “Let’s go!”

We stuck our heads out the door of the maintenance shop and didn’t see anyone in the electrical switchgear room.  We quickly crossed over to the other side and exited the building to the outside through another card reader.  Once through the door, the Old Man said to Dave, “I got it from here.  Go!  And don’t forget to call Marti!”

Dave hesitated for a moment, then turned and left quickly.  As he headed off in one direction, I looked at the Old Man and said, “Lead the way.” 

Keeping to the shadows as much as possible, the Old Man quickly led us to a nondescript side door in another building.  This door didn’t have a key card on it, so we could walk right in.  Inside the room was an old boiler used to provide steam for various auxiliary systems during the startup of the facility some twenty years ago.  It hadn’t been used much since then.  Most plants have one.  There was only one way in and one way out of this room, and it didn’t look like a key piece of gear for the station to be worried about, so the door wasn’t an alarmed one.  This made it an ideal room for us to hole up in for a while, because Security personnel wouldn’t know we were there and weren’t likely to even do rounds in there.  Once inside, we went to the other end of the small room, behind the boiler, and out of sight of the door. 

“Good choice of rooms,” I commented to the Old Man. 

Another check of the time; it was 0217.  We had a few minutes to rest.  I reached into one of my pockets and got out a pack of M&M’s and offered a couple to the Old Man.  M&Ms were a staple for SF guys in the field.  I learned this in the grueling two-year qualifying program I went through where we were starved most of the time and eating nothing but MREs.  Included in each ‘meal ready to eat’ was a treat.  These could be M&M’s or Reese’s or Skittles.  We’d often trade each other for our favorites.  M&M’s were my candy of choice.  They were a quick sugar boost and tasted great when there was nothing else to eat.  I’d eat them one at a time, and even then, only one every so often.  I got good at making them last a long time.  It was a good way to stay sane in the intense world of qualification.  So after I qualified and went to a team, I got in the habit of always keeping a pack with me. 

As we munched on a few M&Ms, the Old Man looked at me and said, “Do you think it’s wise to bring Marti in on this?  Is she up to it?”

I knew better than to dismiss his concerns.  When deployed I would frequently have to bring in some local citizens to assist us.  We were often thought of as a ‘force multiplier’.  We did most of the heavy lifting, but we were used to having some support from the locals, too.  It made us more effective.  In this situation, the Old Man and I were the only boots on the floor, and we needed Marti for some intelligence.  We already used Dave to get us out of the water box.  This was how I did business.  There was always risk in it for those who assisted me, but it didn’t seem to stop good guys from helping.

“You said it yourself earlier.  We need someone who can move around the plant who won’t be scrutinized.  We don’t have a key card and need to move around the plant.  She either comes with us or she stays here and we use her key card.  Because she’s NRC, she has access to all the vital areas on site. That’s good for us.  And because she’s a woman, and the regulator, I don’t think security is going to be paying a great deal of attention to her.”

The Old Man knew I was right, but he’d had to ask. 

As I looked over at the Old Man, he looked remarkably good, especially for what he’d just gone through. I was taking a chance on him because of his age.  Still, he appeared to be holding up well.  I had to give him kudos for that.  At the same time, I didn’t want to insult him by constantly asking him how he was doing.  It didn’t matter anymore.  We were equals on this mission, and we needed each other. 

As we rested and ate M&M’s waiting for Marti to show up, I wondered how Pete was doing.

CHAPTER 45

 

The six men from Waxman Industries reported for mid-shift and went to their normal workstations.  On their first break, they all went up to the warehouse and met outside the back door, as agreed.  The warehouse distribution center main door was open 24/7 now, as workers were preparing for the upcoming refueling outage.  Maintenance technicians were frequently going in and out of the warehouse to collect parts.  But the six men weren’t there to withdraw parts and didn’t go through the main door.  Jansen had provided them with a key to the side door and a location where the Waxman Industries crates had been stored since before Christmas.

Using the key, they opened the door and quietly entered the remote corner of the warehouse.  Two of them stood lookout while the others went off in search of the crates.  It wasn’t hard to locate them using the information they had.  Using several small tools they’d smuggled in hidden in their lunch pails, two men worked to open the first crate.  Inside, they found and pulled out security uniforms including the jackboots, black jumpsuits, black turtlenecks, and black hard hats normally worn by armed responders.  It didn’t take them long to put them on.

The other two men opened another crate and pulled out M-16s and some Sig Sauer side arms, checked that the magazines were full, and pulled out the spares.  These weren’t the weapons they would have preferred, but they were similar to the ones the real security force used, and they didn’t want to stand out.  When the first two men finished dressing as security responders, each took a weapon and relieved the two lookouts so they could get dressed.  Meanwhile, the others were unpacking the explosives from the crates.  They didn’t need to blow doors or breach fences, so they didn’t need shaped charges or equipment necessary to penetrate a perimeter.  Their job now was to set the charges around the plant that could be remotely detonated later.

After they removed the explosives and detonators from the crate, they carefully packed them in satchels that looked like the backpacks so many plant workers carried to hold their personal belongings.  Their goal was to blend in as much as possible.  They were prepared to fight if necessary, but that wasn’t their primary goal. 

Inside one of the crates was a small bag containing six plant badges/key cards with their names and pictures already on them.  Each man took his badge/key card and clipped it to a lanyard around his neck, like all plant employees’ wore.  Different from the badges issued to them as contractors, these would allow them access to vital areas in the plant.  Rob had these programmed in advance after the men had been hired on in December. 

A separate bag that looked like it had just been put in there recently contained keys to locked high radiation areas inside the radiological controls area of the auxiliary building.  These areas contained highly radioactive systems not accessible to the general plant staff.  It took special monitoring and approvals to access these areas.  This was the one set of keys Rob had no control over—they were under the control of the health physics supervisor at Access Control.  Only Health Physics Department people—like Brenda Williams—had access to these keys. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Brenda Williams hadn’t been cooperative at first, but after they’d kidnapped her husband, she’d had no choice but to do what they’d demanded.  Each of the keys had a duplicate and was seldom used.  She’d had to steal the spares and could only do it a few days ago, to lessen the chance of their disappearance being noticed.  The previous weekend, when it had been quiet, she’d managed to get into the lock box and steal the spares.  But when she’d delivered the keys, she’d expected her husband to be released immediately.  When he hadn’t, she’d started screaming and making a scene.  This was when she’d had to be silenced.  While not part of the original plan, Stone had grabbed her by the throat and squeezed down.  Brenda struggled at first, but he’d been just too strong for her.  With her eyes wide open in horror, she’d slipped into oblivion.  Stone then had to find a way to hide the body.  About the only way to dispose of a body on site had been over the side and into the ocean. 

Rob hadn’t liked any of that.  He didn’t think of himself as a murderer—which was what most people on death row said—but then, he hadn’t been the one to actually do the killing.  It was one of Jansen’s men who’d done it.  So Rob justified this killing in his mind as a necessary evil committed by someone else, not him.

By putting her over the side and into the ocean, at least Rob had been able to contain the situation for a while.  But the whole timetable had to be moved up once that damned surfer had found her body on the beach.  That wasn’t supposed to have happened.  Sooner or later, someone would figure it all out and piece things together, but hopefully that would take time.  And by then, they’d have everything in place and there wouldn’t be anything that could be done to stop them.

 

  • * * * *

 

Having taken only a few minutes to dress and recover the weapons and explosives, the men reassembled the crates to look as if they hadn’t been touched, in case anyone came by this location.  It was unlikely that anyone would actually look at these crates in the next few hours, but they did it nonetheless.

Each man shouldered one of the backpacks and took a weapon.  They did this in near silence, grim men all.  Exiting the side door of the warehouse through which they’d entered, they strode down the sidewalk toward the power plant.

CHAPTER 46

 

Marti was in her office trying to remain calm.  It was after 2 a.m., and the adrenaline coursing through her veins because of the unfolding events did the trick to keep her awake.  She didn’t know what lay ahead, but she knew she wanted to be able to contribute in some way. 

She also wanted to spend a bit more time with this new person in her life, Nick.  She was strangely attracted to him but didn’t know if it was his inexplicable and alluring charm or just the circumstances surrounding their meeting.  This was typical for her—always overanalyzing.  As she sat there thinking about what it would be like to be close to him, her phone rang and jolted her back to reality. 

“Hello?” she said, hoping it was Nick.

“Ms. Callahan, this is Dave Street, shift manager.  I need you to listen to me carefully.  Do you know Nick Connor?”

She hesitated for a moment.  She didn’t know how much to divulge.  She knew who Dave was, but at this point she didn’t know whom she could trust.  So she hedged her bet with a noncommittal,  “Why do you ask?”

“Do you know where the package boiler room is?”

“The package boiler?  No, I’m afraid not.  What does that have to do with Nick?” she asked—puzzled. 

“Nick asked me to have you meet him there ASAP.”

“Nick is here, on site?” she asked in a rush.  “Did they let him in?”

“Not exactly.  Nobody knows he’s here but me and you, and we need to keep it that way for the time being.”

“How did he get in then if nobody knows he’s here?” she asked.

“I’m sure he’ll tell you later,” Dave said, trying to hurry her along.  “In the mean time, he needs to see you.”

She felt her heart pounding in her ears.  “So just where is this package boiler room?”

“Go over to the Unit 1 turbine building and exit outside on the 85-foot elevation by the main transformers.  Walk east and you’ll come to a set of stairs that go up toward the ventilation area.  You know where I mean?”

“Yes, I think so.  I don’t go out there much.”

“Okay,” he continued.  “Just before you head up those stairs, there’s a door on the side of the building.  It’s not labeled.  That’s the package boiler room.  Go inside and you should see an old boiler—cold iron and shut down.”

“But what if . . .”

“Just go, and try not to talk to anyone on the way.  I have to go.” 

With that, Dave hung up the phone.  He wasn’t so sure about any of this.  He didn’t know what Nick wanted with the senior resident inspector. He didn’t know Marti well other than the occasional inspection hours she’d logged in the control room and the periodic meetings they were both in at the same time.  But this was out of his hands now.  He had other things to worry about and was already moving.  

 

  • * * *

 

Marti’s heart was pumping as she hung up the phone. She jumped to her feet, grabbed her gear and headed to the elevators.  Turning a corner on her way down the hall, she glanced out the windows.  Something she saw struck her as strange. She instinctively went closer to the window to get a better look.  She was looking out over the back of the facility toward the warehouse.  It was lit up to dispel the darkness outside, which was perhaps why she could see them so clearly.  Coming down from the warehouse were six men, dressed like security officers, and all carrying rifles and satchels.  They were walking purposefully, not fast and not slow.  It just struck her as odd that six armed responders would all be together at the same time.  She normally saw them one at a time.  And what are they doing at the warehouse?  The hair on her arms stood up.  Perhaps it was the way they were walking?  More likely she was just edgy because of everything that was going on.  She shook her head as if to clear it, turned, and headed to the elevator to find the package boiler room—and Nick.

As she got on the elevator and pressed the button for the ground floor, she suddenly felt trapped.  There was only one way in and one way out.  She’d never considered that before.  Why would she?  And even though no one was on the elevator with her, she shivered at the thought. 

When she got to the ground floor, she felt relieved to exit the elevator.  God!  Was she up for any of this?  She couldn’t believe how all this was affecting her.  She wasn’t usually this jumpy.  Get a hold of yourself!

She exited the admin building and headed through the Unit 1 turbine building, out to the transformer area, as instructed.  She looked to the east and found the stairs that Dave had told her about.  She saw the unmarked door near the bottom of the stairs that she assumed was the one she was looking for.  She started for the door when a security officer came up from behind, startling her.

“Excuse me ma’am.  Can I please see your key card?”

She turned with a start and looked at a security officer in a black jump suit, wearing a black turtleneck under his uniform, black highly polished jump boots, with a communications device in his ear, and an M-16 slung over his shoulder.  She felt she must have looked guilty by the way he was studying her before he looked carefully at her badge. 

“Mind if I ask what you’re doing out here at this time of night?” he asked. 

Marti froze in place, shrinking from his penetrating gaze, not knowing quite what to say. 

Because she wasn’t moving or responding to his inquiries, he reached out to take hold of the badge hanging around her neck, lightly grazing the space between her breasts with his hand as he did so.  He turned the badge over and saw the initials ‘NRC’ on it.  He looked back at her face for a moment, and then let go of the badge and watched it fall back in place on her chest. 

His touching her, shocked Marti into action.  She pulled back slightly and in a defiant tone, said, “I’m the NRC resident inspector and I’m inspecting the plant!”

The security officer maintained an expressionless face and tone.  “At this time of night?”

“Do you have a problem with that?  Or should we get the vice president and your boss on the line . . . right now?”  Marti was breathing hard now.

The security officer just looked at her again for what seemed to Marti like a very long time, and then said, “Just doing my job Ms. Callahan.  You have a nice evening.”  With that, he turned and walked into the turbine building electrical switchgear room.

Marti’s heart was racing and her hands were trembling.  She slunk back into the shadows for a moment so she could get out of sight and collect herself.  Her heart told her she was being watched.  Her intellect said that’s absurd!  Nonetheless, she waited another minute, trying to slow her breathing down. She looked around, and seeing no one else, she took a deep breath and continued to walk toward the unmarked door, feeling exposed under the bright lights flooding the transformer area.  She hurried to the door and walked inside, quickly shutting it behind her.  She saw what must be the boiler Dave had told her about, which was obviously not in service and probably hadn’t been in quite some time.  She didn’t even know it was here or what it was for.

She stood still for a moment, not seeing anyone inside and not really knowing what to do next.  Maybe she was in the wrong room.  She was flustered by her encounter with the security officer and still breathing hard when Nick came out from behind the boiler.  She felt relieved and moved over to him, just wanting to be close to someone right now and feel safe.

 

  • * * * *

 

I heard the door open and hoped it was Marti.  I felt vulnerable just standing around and was getting antsy to get moving.  With only one way in and one way out, this room didn’t leave me with a lot of options.  Carefully peeking around the corner of the package boiler, with one hand on my weapon, I was relieved to see it was her, though I couldn’t help noticing how upset she looked.  I stepped out from behind the boiler and headed over to her.  As she saw me, she appeared to relax. 

“Hey, Marti!” She was obviously uneasy about something.  “What’s wrong?” I asked as I approached her. 

“A security officer just stopped me.  I’m not sure I handled it well and I don’t know if he believed me that I was just out doing a tour at this time of night, but it was all I could think of.”

She said all this in a rush, speaking quickly.  I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder to calm her down, which stopped her from talking.  I could feel her trembling slightly.  I assumed it was from her encounter with the security officer. 

“I’m sure you did just fine.”

More slowly this time, Marti said, “I guess I’m a bit flustered because he touched me inappropriately.  He took hold of my badge to look at it.”  She looked down at her chest as she said this.

I, too, looked down and notice where the badge was resting on her blouse.  To take hold of it would result in some contact with her.  I tried not to show any emotion.

“He was probably just trying to intimidate you,” I told her, hoping to calm her down.

“Well, if that was his intent, it worked!”

I found myself starting to feel protective of Marti. Perhaps her slight build had something to do with it.  My first thought was that I’d have to have a short discussion with that security officer.  It would be a discussion he would not enjoy in the least.  But then I checked myself and said, “Hey, Old Man, come on over here and meet Marti.”

As the Old Man walked out from behind the boiler, Marti almost jumped at seeing another person in the room with me.  She was clearly on edge.

“Hi Marti!  Nice to meet you,” the Old Man said with a smile as he extended his hand to her. 

I could tell she wasn’t sure about what to do as she tentatively reached for his hand to return the gesture.  She gripped his hand lightly but didn’t actually shake it.  She looked at him as if studying him, trying to find what made him look familiar to her.  

Then it was like she came back to reality and remembered this was a secure nuclear power plant . . . or supposed to be anyway.  She looked at the Old Man now as if inspecting him.  She knew me but she didn’t know him.  I assumed she was looking to see if either of us has a security badge or a thermo-luminescent dosimeter, or TLD

“Who are you, and how’d you get in here?” 

“Hey, we’re the good guys,” the Old Man said.  “We’re friends of Prichard’s.”

“I’m not sure I can let it go at that.”

The Old Man looked deep into her eyes, “Look, Marti, Nick told me we can count on you.  I hope that’s true.  Right now, we need your help.  We need to move around the plant.”  Knowing what was probably going through her mind, he added,  “As you can see, we have no security badges.”

Marti looked from the Old Man to me.  “Yes, I noticed that.  You clearly didn’t get in here through the front door. You care to explain how you got here?”

I could sympathize with her.  She was in a very compromising situation and it was a stretch for her to blindly trust people she really didn’t know, but we needed to get moving.  So with a stern tone, I said, “We really don’t have time for this right now, and how we got here is irrelevant.  We’re here and we’re on your side.  So let’s move past that.” 

I could see that Marti was still a bit defiant from her run-in with the security officer.  There was no point in continuing to discuss our security status, so I changed the subject and asked her, “Did you get the information to Pete like I asked?”

This caught her off guard, which is what I’d hoped to do. 

“Um, yes, I did,” she said, after a short pause.  “I got him all the information I could on what the FBI has on the location of Dave’s family.  I did that over an hour ago.”

“Good job.  Thank you.”  Then, I gently took her by the elbow and led her off a couple of feet, as if to an area that’s further away from the door.  There was no reason to do this other than to make physical contact with her again.  I needed her on our side, and I knew this would help define and strengthen the connection between the two of us. 

“We need to get to someone in Security.  Who’s the security supervisor tonight?”

Marti inadvertently looked down at my hand on her elbow.  I detected some color in her cheeks.

“I’m not sure,” she answered.  “I think I saw Hector on my way in earlier, but I don’t know if he’s still here.  I have to assume he is, given that the shift change isn’t until morning.” 

She was softening and staring at me.  I smiled slightly at her, which caused her to turn her eyes away from mine.

The Old Man came over to us and asked, “What’s the security supervisor’s phone number?”

Marti looked at the Old Man as if jolted back into reality again.  “You don’t plan to call him, do you?  The Security Department has been compromised.  Isn’t he a bad guy?”

The Old Man said, “Likely as not, he’s okay.  Rob has been turned, but all of these guys can’t have been compromised.  We’re going to have to risk that.  We need to talk with him.”

“I really don’t know his number, but wouldn’t it be better if I contacted him for you, just in case he is a bad guy?  Maybe it would be best if you didn’t tip your hand right away.”

The Old Man smiled at me, and then turned back to Marti.  “Good thinking, Marti!  I think I’m gonna like you!” 

I looked at my watch as a signal.  The Old Man understood.  He turned to Marti and said, “Okay.  Go back to your office and give him a call.  If you think you can trust him, tell him to meet us here.  But he needs to hurry.  We’re time crunched here.”

Marti paused and looked as if she could think of a few dozen reasons why she should object, but she was getting worn down and just opted to do as requested.  “Okay,” was all she could say, then turned and headed to the door.  Just before she opened it, she glanced back at me, as if searching for some confirmation that what she was about to do was correct, as silly as that may have seemed.  So I nodded ever so slightly to her.  She nodded back, and strode out of the package boiler room, leaving us standing there, wondering what she was going to do.

CHAPTER 47

 

SATURDAY MORNING

 

THE INCURSION

 

Out in the hills behind the power plant, the fog was moving inland now and with it came the cold.  Nick’s team was trying to stay warm and in a ready condition.  They were about to be asked to do something that gave them pause.  When they’d done this kind of thing before, they were in the military and the bad guys were of a different nationality.  Now, they were all civilians and working for a company that provided industrial security assessments. 

Their boss was inside and in harm’s way, and they’d do their best to protect him.  They were all indebted to Nick for their lives through a bond with him that was forged in far-away places, on missions that didn’t officially exist.  They were thinking men but were fiercely loyal to Nick and to each other. None of them had a problem with this job, but it had crossed a few minds that they were likely as not going to kill some people.  It was possible that they may have even trained with some of these guys at some point in their careers. 

It was this thoughtfulness that made the people on his team valuable to Nick. But thoughtfulness didn’t equate to hesitation.  The time for discussion was in the briefing, not in the field.  The team knew that and was fully prepared to do what they came to do, and do it quickly and efficiently.  The men weren’t mercenaries, like the members of Jansen’s team.  They were patriots, and they would do what they had to do to preserve the peace.  Even though they weren’t wearing the uniforms anymore, if you cut them they’d all bleed olive drab green—the color of all things Army. 

It was 0200; the time Red One gave them to begin.  The Red Two team leader looked at his watch and then gave two quick squawks on his comm as a signal to his team that they were go for take-back.  He and five others were already positioned in the brush well behind Jansen’s team, but close enough to be in position to breach the fence should that be necessary. 

Meanwhile, the two-man sniper/observer team was in a hide site one hundred meters uphill and behind them.  Their scopes had special optics for use at night, allowing them to see Jansen’s team while remaining hidden themselves, keeping a low profile and ready to move.  The sniper/observer team had to move into position quickly when they got the go order earlier in the day and didn’t have time to set up the hide site a day in advance as they normally would have done.  They moved into a position Nick had described as a likely spot to view Jansen’s team.  When they’d arrived an hour ago, they found the bad guys right where they were supposed to be. 

They checked the weather one last time.  The air was heavy with moisture, but this was mostly irrelevant at this relatively short distance.  The spotter got his final wind speed based on the swaying of the plants halfway to their targets as well as close up to the targets, using their Leopold spotting scope.  Wind direction was based on a variety of factors, including the direction of the waves and surface ripples on the nearby ocean.  They determined distance information with a laser finder.   They assumed the men they were going against today were well trained and armed, and so they would not take this lightly.  One slip could give them away, and they didn’t intend to let that happen.

The observer whispered the information to the sniper, who took aim with his suppressed .300 Win Mag long gun.  After taking a few deep breaths, then one last controlled breath, he let it out and slowly squeezed his 2.5 lb. custom-milled trigger.  The first man on Jansen’s team dropped before the crack of the round could have been heard if the rifle hadn’t been suppressed.  With calm winds and a direct line of sight, there was no need for trajectory corrections, so the other five men were down within seconds of the first. 

The sniper team now trained their view on the remote parking lot.  It was the best vantage point for anyone wanting to establish a mobile command post.  It was remote, provided a good view, was patrolled infrequently, and had a good means of egress.  Just the kind of spot Jansen would likely use for his lookout.  They were told to look for Jansen and find him if they could. 

The rest of Red Two’s team got the report that Jansen’s team was down, confirmed dead by the spotter.  They got ready to move.  They had suppressed carbines that shot 5.56 mm hollow-tip rounds so as not to over-penetrate the body and risk hitting someone inside the plant.  The rounds traveled at 3,200 feet per second supersonic speed. 

The men wore gloves to protect their hands from the thickets and brush, but with the fingertips cut off their trigger fingers and thumbs so they could shoot more effectively.  They humped in all the gear they would need to breach the fence, including a quickie saw, with a twenty-inch, diamond-studded, tungsten blade that could make quick work of a chain-link fence.  Blowing a hole in the fence with explosives took longer and would definitely create more noise and attract attention.  Minimizing attention and moving as quickly as possible would enhance their chance of success. 

Each man had an earbud/push-to-talk comm link with the team leader.  The team leader opened a comm channel with Nick and informed him of their success. 

 

  • * * * *

 

I put the phone down and turned to the Old Man. 

“Jansen’s men were right where we thought they’d be.  They’ve all been neutralized.  He’s going to pick up on that when they don’t answer his comm check.  Things are going to start to get serious around here.  We aren’t out of the woods yet.  I have to believe that Jansen isn’t counting on those guys.  Even our report pointed out the risks of coming in that way.  They could do it, but it wouldn’t be clean and they wouldn’t be unobserved.”

The Old Man nodded his head, saying, “I agree.  We can be sure his primary plan still has some teeth in it.  We’ve got to talk with Hector.  Where the hell is he?”

“If Marti got to him, he should be along pretty soon. Let’s just hope he’s on our side when he gets here.  As for Jansen, he’s doing pretty much what we’d expected,” I said.  “This means we’ve been right so far, and, I assume, he still doesn’t know we’re here.” 

The Old Man looked at me.  “Let’s hope so.”

CHAPTER 48

 

Jansen looked at his watch.  0230.  It was time to move his men into place.  He got his comm link up and called his men in the field.  No answer.  He tried again, with the same result.  A deep foreboding started to settle in.  While he knew there was risk involved in trying to take over a nuclear power plant, he thought he’d had all his bases covered, especially now that he had Connor’s report. 

He went over it one more time in his head.  He had people inside the plant—both his men and a key member of the plant security force.  He had men outside the plant.  And he had access to all the sensitive information he’d needed.  He had the element of surprise on his side.  Nobody knew what he was planning to do.  His forces could easily overwhelm the station security force.  Once he’d taken control of the plant, all the installed security measures would actually work for him and against the FBI agents who would try to come in through the front gate. 

He’d thought of everything.  He’d been trained to.  He didn’t like to think of the consequences of failure.  His ego and arrogance wouldn’t allow for it.  But now something had gone wrong.  He tried his team one more time.  No answer.  Shit!

Jansen hoped it was just a comm failure.  The hills and the fog might be interfering with communications, but he knew he couldn’t count on that.  He looked around to see if anyone was in the parking lot.  Seeing no one, he decided to get out of the car and try to locate the team through binoculars.  If you knew what to look for, it should be possible to see them.  Convincing himself the coast was clear and nobody was watching him, he got his binoculars out and carefully moved toward the edge of the parking lot to look for them.  As he scanned the brush, he saw nothing and nobody.  He tried to make contact once more via radio.  Nothing.  Slowly, he began to realize that something was seriously wrong.  And standing around unprotected like he was only invited something else to go wrong.  He concluded that he could no longer stay there and that he needed to move to his alternate location.  If something was genuinely wrong, then his location there had probably been compromised. 

Connor!  The FBI wasn’t smart enough to figure any of this out.  But if anyone could have, it would be Connor.  But how could he know, and how could he have done anything about it so quickly?

Time to move.  He got back in the car and started it up. 

 

  • * * * *

 

  The sniper/observer team identified Jansen and watched him get back into his car.  But before they could do anything about it, he’d moved off. 

“Sniper to Red One,” I heard in my earpiece.

“This is Red One. Go.”

“Jansen just spotted in the upper parking lot.  Something spooked him and he just moved out.”

“Copy that.  Red Two, this is Red One.  Prepare to breach.”

“Copy that.  Red Two out.”

I turned to the Old Man and told him what had just happened. “Where do you think he’s going next?” I asked.

“It depends on why he’s leaving.  If it’s part of his plan, that’s one thing.  But if he feels compromised as your man suspects, maybe he knows his team is missing.  So where’s the next safest place around here for him?  You did the security analysis.  Where would you go?”

I thought about it for a moment.  So far, Jansen was doing about what I’d expected him to do.  That was the good news.  It meant that Jansen was predictable and that we were one step ahead of him.  But if I were he, I’d know that I didn’t control everything.  There were still a lot of variables.  The trick was to minimize those variables.  Based on my research and evaluation of the station’s vulnerabilities to attack, I’d already determined that the secure spot was now inside the plant where Jansen and Rob probably had additional assets of one sort or another. 

“If it were me, I’d go into the plant where I had the security manager on my side.  So far, he doesn’t know that we know about him or Rob.  So he probably feels he has a back door out of here.  If he leaves the site now, he won’t be able to control the outcome and then he’ll have lost this encounter—and, no doubt, his paycheck.  No, he’s committed now.  He needs a win.  The only way left to him now is to come inside and make it happen himself.”

The Old Man nodded his head in agreement.  “I think you’re right.  It really doesn’t matter, though.  If you’re wrong and he leaves the site, then this whole thing will unravel for him and all we have to do is pick up the pieces.  But if you’re right and he comes inside, then we have our work cut out for us.  I don’t see that we have a choice.  We need to assume he’s coming in.”

“We’ve got to get to Hector.  Conditions have changed. We can’t stay here any longer,” I said.  “If Marti hasn’t gotten to him by now, we’ll have to go find him.”

CHAPTER 49

 

Just as I’d said that, the door to the package boiler room opened abruptly.  I pulled the Old Man back behind the old boiler. 

I whispered in his ear, “Stay here!” 

This wasn’t good, and there was no place to go.  I needed to take control of the situation.  I had to move to intercept whomever just came in the room, where I could get up close and had more options.  If we were caught hiding, it would only look worse.  So, with one hand behind my back on the Sig Sauer in my belt, I walked out from behind the boiler.

“Hey, how’s it going?” I asked lightly as I moved toward the person, who was dressed in security garb, standing in the room, just this side of the door.

“Stop right there!  Identify yourself!” he said loudly and authoritatively.

“Hey, take it easy man.  My name’s Bob.  I’m an operator just checking out this equipment for the shift manager.  You know Dave, right?” I kept talking and moving closer to the security person. 

“Bob, my ass.  How are you, Nick?  And I’ll ask you to stop immediately and put both your hands in front of you where I can see them,” he said, drawing his own side arm and pointing it at me. 

I stopped moving, still a few feet way.  If I sprang at him right then and there, I’d have a chance to take the guy down.  Always go in.  They don’t expect that.  Instead, I stopped and showed my hands as instructed.  Marti had done her job.  There was no way Hector would have come in here for any other reason.  And, as he was alone, it likely meant he was on our side.  I breathed a sigh of relief.

“How are you, Hector?”

“I’ll tell you that when you tell me how the fuck you got on site?  I know for a fact you didn’t come in through the front door.”

“You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you, so I won’t bother.  But we need to talk.  I assume we’re on the same side?”

“Depends.  Where’s your buddy?”

“Depends on what?” I said as I continued to try to talk him down a bit.  Keep the conversation going.  It distracts the person.  I was pretty sure Hector was on our side, and he just didn’t know it yet.  But in case he wasn’t, I wanted to keep my options open.

“Depends on which side you’re on,” Hector said.  “I won’t ask again.  Where’s your buddy?” as he cocked the trigger on the weapon he has pointed at me.

“He’s just an old man.  Take it easy, would ya?” Without taking my eyes off Hector, I tilted my head toward where the Old Man was hiding and said, “Come on out.  It’s my buddy Hector.”

The Old Man moved slowly out from behind the boiler and walked over to me.  I was sure he didn’t like having a weapon pointed at him any more than I did.  But he seemed to sense what I was trying to do, so he said in an affable way, “Howdy, officer!”

Hector moved slowly away from the door, keeping his weapon on me, covering our exit should we try to make a run for it, but positioning himself to see around behind the boiler.  When he was convinced we were alone, he backed over to the wall where he could more easily cover both the door and the two of us in front of him. 

I noticed what he was doing.  “Nice work.  Good way to cover a room.  I assume you learned that in the Marines?”

“I did, and I don’t much care for you or what you think, so don’t press me.  I’d just as soon shoot you as look at you.  You’re trespassing on a nuclear facility and odds are you’re carrying.  I could drop you both right now and sleep really well tonight.  Now, what are you doing here and how did you get into my power plant?”

“Look, you know who I am and where I come from.  We don’t have a lot of time here.  You’re either on Prichard’s side or you’re one of the bad guys.  I assume because you haven’t called for backup or come with any support, you’re one of the good guys.  So please lower your weapon so we can talk.  We’re here to help you, as I’m sure your NRC resident inspector told you.”

Hector looks pissed as hell and not all that sure whom to trust, but he knew I was right.  He was here alone but kept his guard up all the same.  “I’m listening . . . ”

“Your plant is under attack right now.”

“Yeah, I know all about the threat.  Big deal.  They’re not getting in here.”

“They’re already here.”

Hector remained impassive but I noticed his breathing changed ever so slightly. 

“Let me tell you a couple of things you don’t know.  Rob’s running interference for a guy named Jansen, ex-military guy, who’s running an op on you.  They’re the ones who killed Brenda and put her in the drink.  The threat is a smoke screen for what they’re really doing.  Rob gave my report to Jansen and he’s using it against you right now.  He had a small team in the hills behind the plant, right where my report said was the best place from which to begin an assault.”

I could see Hector was losing his edge.  His elbows unlocked, his eyes were darting back and forth and his body posture slumped a little.  “How do you know all that?”

“Because my team found them right where we thought they’d be and killed them all.”  I picked my words carefully.  I was transitioning from being Hector’s buddy to being the guy in charge, and I needed to do that carefully.  I didn’t want to spook him.  

Hector lowered his weapon slowly to his side but maintained a two-handed grip on it.  He was thinking about what he’d just heard.  Based on what Marti had told him a few minutes ago and what I’d just told him, Hector’s face revealed that he was now seriously worried about what was going on, but that he was also starting to believe that I might be on his side after all.

I pressed on.  “Prichard asked us to help him out.  So that’s what we’re doing.  The FBI is outside and planning to come in tomorrow, late as usual, but things have changed and we need your help.  This thing is going down tonight.  You in, Marine?”

The military reference snapped Hector out of his daze.  He looked up and held my gaze for a moment.  I was sure Prichard had told him something of my background, which I’d hoped allayed his immediate concerns.  I could tell he was also processing the information I’d just given him¾that I’d somehow managed to breach the plant security system without him knowing about it, had security intel he didn’t have, and may have a kill squad of my own in the hills behind the plant.  Right now, I was sure I looked every bit the Special Forces operative he’d been was told I’d been. 

“Okay.  I’m in.  But I’m still going to keep my eyes on you,” he said, holstering his side arm.  “Who’s this?” he asked, pointing at the Old Man. 

“Let’s just say he’s my technical consultant.”

Hector didn’t like my response and didn’t know if he should press me on it or not.  But he’d made his decision now and he had to go with it.  “Okay, what’s going on and what’s the plan?” he asked, all business now.  I gave him a quick rundown on what we knew so far, including Dave Street’s issue.

“It’s starting to make sense now.  Rob gave us this cock-and-bull story about keeping an eye on Street tonight.  Some B.S. about fitness for duty.  We found him meeting with Prichard a little while ago in the plant.  So if Rob’s batting for the other side, it all makes sense.”

The Old Man spoke up.  “We need to get into SAS.  We need some intel about what’s going on inside the plant, and the secondary alarm station is the best place for that.  Can you help us out?”

“Why the secondary alarm station?” Hector asked.  “Why not come into the central alarm station with me?”

The Old Man replied, “CAS is in the security building, which is way too visible for us.  Nobody knows we’re here, and we’d like to keep it that way.  Besides that, SAS is just outside the control room and that might come in handy later on.”

“How do you know so much about our power plant?”

I smiled and said, “He’s annoying that way, isn’t he?  I told you, he’s my technical guy.”

“So, can you get us up there?” the Old Man persisted.

“You realize by my helping you, I’m breaking a few hundred federal laws.  My ass is hanging out there a mile.”  Hector had already made up his mind to help us but made one last attempt to clear his conscience.  He’d had to say it out loud, recognize the risk, and then move on. 

“Well, if we actually survive this thing and get rolled up by the FBI and go to prison, I’ll give you the window cell,” I said. 

Hector visibly relaxed at the gallows humor.  “All right. Let’s go.”

“Wait a minute,” I said.  “Before we go, can you trust the guys on your team?  Rob is bad and we don’t know if there are others.”

Hector was in action mode now.  “We’ll just have to play that by ear.  I can tell you if one of my team crosses me, I’ll fucking shoot the bastard myself.”

I had no doubt he would do just that.  I was starting to like Hector. 

He then turned, opened the door, looked around, and moved off quickly toward the plant.  We followed close behind. 

CHAPTER 50

 

HOSTAGES

 

Pete pulled up the data on the recently rented house in Orange County, not far from Disneyland.  It hadn’t been hard to find. He’d easily cracked the MLS database and found the information he’d needed while on the plane ride down.  One rental in particular looked a bit suspicious.  It was rented to a corporation from Atlanta, which made absolutely no sense in this neighborhood.  This was a low-rent area, and corporate officials would not likely use a house out here.  It looked to Pete like a good place to start.

He’d arranged for a car to be waiting for him at the private hanger when he arrived.  It was a nondescript rental, and would do for his purposes.  He got in the car, set up his GPS unit, and headed as quickly as he could to the private neighborhood with the rented house.  Twenty minutes later, he was cruising the neighborhood slowly.  He knew he’d only get one chance to do this.  If the kidnappers were alert, they’d be watching the street, and would notice a car drive by twice—that is, if they were worth their salt.  He had to assume they were. 

He identified the house he was looking for.  The blinds were drawn, and there were no cars in the driveway.  It was the middle of the night, and nothing looked to be out of the ordinary.  He needed a closer look, though, so he parked around the corner and quietly got out.  He worked his way up to the house through the neighbors’ back yards.  Fortunately, he didn’t hear any dogs barking to give away his presence.  He moved as quietly as he could but dogs have damn good hearing.  He took this to mean that there were no dogs in his immediate vicinity. 

Pete was close to the house now and didn’t like the streetlights out front and the lack of shrubbery for cover near the house.  Even though he was quiet, it would be hard to approach the house without being seen—if anyone was watching. 

He’d brought military-grade night vision goggles (NVGs) but they weren’t needed as the whole neighborhood was far too well lit for his liking.  He’d also brought a thermal imaging device with him that worked through windows, even with blinds drawn.  This would help him locate anyone inside the house.  He moved up next to what he assumed was a bedroom window, put the device against the glass pane, and scanned.  He saw the images of two small children lying on a bed.  They appeared to be hunched up—not a normal position for kids lying in bed.  He was confident now that he had the right house.  He moved to the next window, and repeated the process.  He saw an adult in a similar position on that bed—most likely a woman by the size and body contour. 

He was still on the side of the house but had to move to the front to be able to see in the living room.  He was completely exposed while doing this but knew it was the only way he’d get the information he needed.  He had to move quickly so he could get out of sight again as soon as possible.  He positioned the device at the corner of the window and saw a man, sitting upright in a chair.  The guard.  Got ‘em!  The guy in the living room was positioned with his back to the wall so he could see the door and the window, while being close to a hall leading to the back door, as a possible escape route.  Okay.  It was obvious to Pete that some planning had gone into this.  They weren’t complete morons.

Pete crouched down underneath the window and thought about it for a minute.  Mostly likely, the guy wasn’t really expecting a frontal assault.  He’d probably only been here a short while himself and thought it improbable that anyone knew he was there.  It was also late and he was probably drowsy.  These were all assumptions that Pete knew he couldn’t rely on.  But he had the element of surprise on his side . . . at least for the time being. 

The front door would most certainly be locked but could easily be breached.  This would be easier with two guys, but it was just him and time was a’wasting.  He decided shock and awe would be his way in.  He’d blow the door off the hinges, toss in a flash bang, and move in shooting.  He figured the odds of success were on his side with the hostages in the back rooms and only one guard in the front room. 

Having made his plan, he crept up to the front door and, as quietly as possible, attached a small explosive to each of the hinges.  He attached a detonator and moved back.  This took him less than a minute.  He was in the wide open while working on the front door, but there was nobody on the road to notice. 

Just to be on the safe side, he got his TID out again and looked in the living room one more time.  The guy was gone!  Not there!  Shit!  He didn’t think he’d been heard, but there was a chance he had been.  There were only so many places the guy could have gone.  Pete scanned the bedroom with the woman in it again, half expecting the guy to be in there with her.  He wasn’t.  He could be in the bathroom, or in the kitchen getting something to eat or drink.  What were the odds of that happening just as he was getting ready to blow the door?  That was simply too coincidental for him.

Pete knew if he couldn’t identify the guard’s exact location, it’d be too risky going in.  Kids in one room, the woman in the other.  As he was thinking it over, he looked behind him and saw the streetlight again.  It was possible—quite likely now that he thought about it—that he’d cast a shadow in one of the windows.  If that was the case, the guy inside may have seen it and was now alerted to his presence.  He had to assume something along this line.

 

  • * * * *

 

The man inside saw shadows move across the window.  Stone told him to expect something like this, just before he’d left several hours ago.  Stone wasn’t supposed to leave but said something about needing to get to the plant.  Who was he to argue with him about it?  Besides, guarding a woman and some kids for one night wasn’t a real challenge. 

On his own now that Stone had left, he was on alert and believed he still had the upper hand.  He had the hostages, but his heart was beating a lot faster now.  He’d have been more comfortable if there were two of them there, instead of just him.  Damn Stone for leaving!  After he saw the shadow, he decided being closer to the hostages was his best bet.  So he quickly and quietly moved into the back bedroom with the kids.  He had the front door rigged so if anyone came in that way, it’d be the last thing they’d ever do.  In the smoke and confusion, it would also allow him to kill the hostages, sneak out the back door, and make his way to a car down the road he had parked there for just this reason.  That was the plan, anyway.  He got out his weapon and readied himself. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Pete squatted along the side of the house.  He had to come up with something—soon.  If the guy wasn’t in the front room or the bedroom with the woman, the only other logical place would be in with the kids.  He might assume someone would risk shooting the woman, but nobody would risk shooting a kid.  As quietly as he could, and mindful not to cast a shadow this time, he put his TID to the back bedroom window.  Sure enough, the guy had taken up position in there. Somehow, Pete had been detected.  Instead of waking the kids, the guy positioned himself behind the bed, on the floor, facing the door, with the kids between him and the door.  The guy probably thought he had a good position.  But it wouldn’t be good enough.  Pete knew if he could see him, he could shoot him.

He didn’t want to give this guy any more time to think. He drew his weapon and readied the remote for the charges on the door.  He hoped the guy wouldn’t know that Pete knew he’d been detected.  Hopefully, he was still assuming Pete would come through the front door.  Likely as not, that front door was booby-trapped, too—the guy gave it up too easily. 

Pete knew he had one chance at this.  He’d blow the front door, use that as a diversion, and come in through the bedroom window.  That would be his only edge.  He counted down from three, and then blew the front door. 

CHAPTER 51

 

RED NORTH!

 

Rob’s secure phone rang.  It was Jansen.

“I’m coming in.  I’ll go to your office.  Meet me there in five.”

“You’re what?  Are you crazy? What about . . .” but the phone line was already dead.  Rob’s throat tightened.  This wasn’t going according to plan.  Why the hell had he gotten mixed up in this in the first place?  What had he been thinking?  Yeah, the money looked good and he had some legitimate grievances.  It all looked so easy before.  But things kept changing.  If Jansen was coming in, something had gone wrong.  This was a contingency plan, and he knew it.  Jansen and Stone had even been into the plant once before to scout some of this out and to make sure their ID badges presented no problems to getting in.  But now that Jansen was coming in, Rob was beginning to have serious doubts about coming out of this in one piece.  Regret and recrimination coursed through his mind.  His blood pressure and respiration went up.  He was scared.

He closed the blinds so nobody could see in.  He was on the ground level and people could walk by his office windows, even at that time of night. 

A few minutes later, Jansen walked into his office and closed the door.  Rob thought to himself, this guy has balls of steel!  He’s trying to hold up this nuclear power plant and he just walks through security and into the protected area as if he worked there!  Rob couldn’t imagine doing some of these things himself. 

“What the hell happened?” he asked, not waiting for Jansen to say anything first.

Jansen could see Rob was agitated.  It was written all over his face, which was tense and hard.  His skin had a deathly pallor to it.  He was pacing his office like a caged animal, first looking down, and then looking up. 

“Calm down,” Jansen said.  “I lost contact with my team in the field.  It could be a comm problem, though I doubt it.  If something happened to them, then I needed to be in here.  We talked about that, remember?”

“Of course I remember!  I just didn’t think it would happen!  What could possibly have happened to them?”

“I don’t know, but they were only a distraction anyway. Our main force is inside the perimeter and should have things in place any time now.  None of them have been detected, have they?”

Rob replied, “No.  Of course not!  I’d have told you, don’t you think?”  Then Rob looked down and fingered some papers on his desk, trying to look casual, though feeling anything but.  “Prichard met with the shift manager earlier tonight.  They met out in the plant.”

Jansen tightened his jaw and leaned forward, hands on Rob’s desk.  “Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this earlier?”

Rob was momentarily taken aback by Jansen’s menacing posture.  He was a big guy and as he leaned in, he towered over Rob.

“Hey, I just found out about it myself,” Rob said defensively.  “The guys like Street.  The idea of keeping him under surveillance didn’t make much sense to them.  So the guy who saw him, didn’t report it right away.”

Jansen eased off a bit.  He knew he was intimidating Rob, understood that he needed him, and needed him at his best, not afraid he was going to be beat to within an inch of his life with the ashtray on his desk.  He knew he was a bit on edge, too.  But this wasn’t the end of the world, so he relaxed his posture, looked around, and found a chair to sit in.

Rob went on.  “Street said he was checking out a leak in the component cooling water system, but he and Prichard stopped talking as soon as my officer showed up.”

Jansen leaned back in his chair, which was almost more intimidating than when he was leaning on the desk.  “Is there anything else you haven’t told me about?”

Rob wasn’t sure how Jansen would take the next bit of news either.  He was reluctant to tell him, but he needed to get it all out there.  Even though he was the security manager, he felt like a subordinate when Jansen was around. 

“As it turns out, the NRC resident is on site as well.”  Rob paused, but only briefly.  Then, as if to justify this news, he rushed on.  “That’s not particularly unusual either, but again, it’s awfully coincidental.  I’ve been having her watched.  Seems she went out in the plant earlier, too.  One of my guys bumped into her by the main transformers.  Looked suspicious, but she didn’t meet with anyone . . . as far as we could tell.”

Jansen was doing a slow boil.  He couldn’t believe what he was hearing.  He was starting to have serious doubts about Rob. “You’re telling me it’s normal for her to be out walking the plant in the middle of the night?  And on this night in particular?  Didn’t that strike you as a bit strange?”

He was past the point of showing his anger.  He’d keep the rest of that inside for now.  He still believed he had the upper hand.  He was on the inside, in a defensible position, with security now protecting him—even though they didn’t know it—and all the ‘good guys’ were on the outside.  It wouldn’t be as clean as he’d wanted, but it’d still work. 

“What about the FBI?” Jansen asked, not really expecting Rob to respond to his previous challenge as to the NRC’s senior residents whereabouts.  “Are they still on track to shut down the place in the morning?”

“As far as I know.  They’re trying to keep it very quiet, but they’ll be here about 0600 to make sure the graveyard shift goes home and nobody else comes in.  After that, they take control and plan to begin a search of the place.”

Jansen smiled to himself.  Some things were very predictable, and this was one of them.  He and his team would walk out with the other graveyard workers and detonate the explosives remotely.  Rob didn’t know that though.  Rob thought they were going to stay on site and negotiate the terms of the ransom.  Part of that was to include safe passage out of there.  But what Rob didn’t know was that he was going to be left inside, alone, and holding the bag.  Jansen knew what Rob apparently did not, that there would be no negotiating with the FBI.  Rob would spend the rest of his life in prison.  It wouldn’t matter what he told the FBI about him.  He’d be long gone and untouchable.  Jansen already had his exit strategy out of the country, set up through Atlanta. 

“How are my boys doing?” Jansen asked, referring to his men inside the plant.

“I’ve been tracking their whereabouts on the security computer.  Based on where they are, I’d say they’re not done yet.  They’re still working on it.  They have to be careful so as not to attract attention.”

Jansen smiled to himself.  It was all so easy.

CHAPTER 52

 

Hector, the Old Man, and I hurried up the back stairs to the 140-foot elevation of the turbine deck.  As we exited the stairwell near the door to the control room, we turned left and found an ordinary-looking structure with no windows or other adornments.  There were no markings on it to indicate what was inside.  And as odd as that may have seemed, the two-story building was just not that noticeable for some reason.  Hiding in plain sight. 

Inside the structure was the secondary alarm station, or SAS.  Plant employees walked by it every day and probably didn’t know what the building was for.  If somebody were to stick his head in the door on the lower level, all he would see is a locker room used by the fire brigade and the security staff as a changing room and staging area. 

In the corner, a stairway led to an upper level, where a secure door opened to a small room filled with computer screens and computers.  This was similar to CAS, which was in the security building; only this one was a backup.  As such, it didn’t have all the bells and whistles that CAS had.  But it was functional.  It could view the input from the cameras around the site and had the ability to take control of them, if necessary.  Perhaps more importantly for the Old Man and me, it had access to the security computer, which tracked the use of key cards being used around the facility. 

Hector swiped his key card on the electronic pad outside the door, placed his hand on the hand geometry station, waited for the green light, opened the door, and led us in.  Jerry and Ben, the security officers on watch, clearly weren’t expecting anyone when Hector walked in with the two of us in tow.

“Guys, I know this is unusual,” Hector began, preempting their obvious ensuing objections.  “These guys are contractors Prichard hired to help us out.  Nick, here, ran the drill the other night, as you know.  This is his . . . partner.  They know about the threat to the station and want to look at a few things.”

Jerry, the senior of the two, stared at Hector as if wanting to argue with him, but recognized Hector’s positional authority over them.  Ben continued to watch the monitors, preferring to stay out of it altogether.  He knew if he ever wanted to get off this damn graveyard shift, he couldn’t afford to rock the boat.

“I want you to give them your complete cooperation.” 

I noticed Hector didn’t tell them the whole story.  Because of what we’d told him, he was undoubtedly suspicious of whom he could trust.  But these guys worked for him tonight, and he was counting on them to do as he’d asked, with little pushback. 

Everyone knew that the term ‘contractor’ in the security world meant something akin to being a black ops guy.  When we were on a site we weren’t generally asked a lot of questions. But tonight wasn’t normal.  I expected to get questions I didn’t normally get.

Jerry, the senior of the two, looked at us quizzically, but addressed Hector.  “They aren’t wearing any key cards or TLDs.  They shouldn’t even be on site, let alone in here.  What gives, Hector?  This is completely out of line and inappropriate.”

“I told you, they’re with me.  That should be enough for you.”

“I don’t mean to buck you on this, but no, it’s not enough for me.  I need to check with CAS on this.”

I could see that Hector’s story wasn’t going to hold up.  We were fighting the clock and we needed these guys to help us, and not discuss this with CAS, so I spoke up. 

“Guys, the bottom line is that there are some perps inside the plant right now and we have to find them.  I have a team out in the hills that just took down an assault team.  You’ve also been compromised from the inside.  We can’t afford to call CAS.  Gentlemen, you’re under attack and you just don’t know it.  The sooner you come to grips with that, the better off we’ll all be.”

Jerry and Ben looked at one another.  Ben looked at Hector and asked, “Is this for real?  This isn’t some kind of drill or something, is it?  Because if it is, it’s damn lousy timing.”

Hector took a cue from my directness, and continued.  “No, this is no drill.  You need to do as we ask, and you cannot communicate with CAS or with Rob.  You guys need to trust me on this.  I’m up here because we believe CAS may be compromised.”

Having previewed everyone’s files, I knew that Jerry and Hector went way back.  The current situation was unusual, to say the least, but he had no reason not to trust Hector.  Nonetheless, he couldn’t acquiesce so quickly. 

“Hector, man, do you know what you’re saying?  CAS is compromised?  I don’t know why you think that and I don’t know who these guys are,” nodding in my direction.  “But what I do know is they shouldn’t be in here.   And by the looks of things, they shouldn’t be on plant site.  You’re gonna have to give me something or I’m going to have to call this in.”

Hector sat down in a chair next to Jerry.  “If what we’re telling you is true, and you don’t help us, you’ll know pretty soon, whether you call this in or not.  Hell, if I were lying to you, I’d have shot you already.  Either that or he would have,” he said, nodding to me.  “You know me.  You need to go with me on this.  I know that’s not fair to ask you, but that’s it.  That’s the deal.”

Jerry looked at Hector as the seconds ticked away.  I was getting antsy.  I glanced at Jerry’s partner, Ben, who’d been sitting there, wide eyed, probably wondering whose side he should be on.  This would be much easier with their help, but I was getting ready to take control of the situation, by force if need be. 

Jerry looked over at Ben, nodded, and then looked at me.  “What do you need, sir?”

I put a hand on his shoulder, to affirm my appreciation for the trust. 

“Thanks, guys!  First of all, we need to know if anyone came into the plant recently.  Look back an hour or so.  There shouldn’t be a lot to traffic, so this should be easy to find.”

Ben said, “I can do that.  Give me a minute.”  He turned to his computer and started making some inquiries. 

The Old Man looked at me. “We need to look for anomalies.  Guys in areas they may have no reason to be in at this time of night, that kind of thing.”

“Agreed.  Jerry, how do we go about that?”

Just then, Ben chirped up.  He’d finished his search.  That didn’t take long.  “A contract guy from some company called Waxman Industries came in about a half hour ago.  That’s about it.” 

The Old Man asked quickly before I could, “Where’d he go?  Can you tell?”

“He came in through Security but then didn’t clear any other card reader.  My guess is that he’s probably in the admin building somewhere.”

That had to be Jansen.  But what was he doing, and where was he doing it from?  “Can you run a history on that key card and see when it was last used to enter the protected area?” I asked.

Ben said, “Already did.  The computer shows that he was here a few days ago, but not since.”

“I don’t suppose you can pull up a picture of him, can you?”  

He entered some data into the computer, and within seconds a file sprang to life on the computer screen.  A few more keystrokes had his picture up.  There on the screen in SAS was Jansen’s picture. 

I looked at the Old Man.  “That’s him.”

More to Hector than anyone else I said, “That’s the leader of the adversaries.  We need to find that guy.” 

Jerry and Ben were fidgeting in their chairs and looked like they were still having a hard time processing this information.  Nothing like this had ever happened there before—or at any other nuclear power plant that they were aware of.  Now they were hearing terms like ‘adversary’ that could only mean one thing.  But Hector was already on board, and getting mad.

“Damn right we need to find him!  I want to know where that bastard is!”

“Whoa!” I cautioned.  “Not so fast.  We know he’s here but he doesn’t know we are.  That can work to our advantage.  My guess is that he’s here to coordinate the team he has inside.  If we go looking for him, we could set events into motion we don’t want to happen or aren’t ready for yet.”

“But we have to do something!” Hector said, clearly getting frustrated and starting to feel helpless.  As the security leader, he was wired to be pro-active and not just sit around waiting for something to happen.  But he also knew the value of patience and smart planning.  I could see that reconciling the two was a struggle for him.  But it wouldn’t last long.  I was about to rock his world. 

“Is there any way he could communicate with his team in the field?  In other words, can we hack into his comm channel?” I asked.

The Old Man fielded that one. “Doubtful.  The concrete and steel in this place make it hard for any kind of portable communications net that doesn’t use the internal radio channels.  They’d know that and would likely stay off of them.  Even fire-fighters and law enforcement personnel need to use the plant’s handy-talkies when they get here because their systems won’t work.”

“Then Jansen won’t know how they’re doing until they’re done.”

“True, but whoever he’s working with here, if he has access to a computer, can track their movements by looking for doors opened by their key cards.”

“That means we should be able to do the same thing.”

Jerry spoke up, “Let me run some door activity and see if I can account for all of it.  I know where most of our delta responders are—or where they should be, anyway.  This’ll take a few minutes, though.”

Not wishing to step on Hector’s toes, but not having time to worry too much about who was in charge, I simply said, “Thanks, Jerry.  Do it.” 

I then turned to Ben and asked, “Do we have cameras inside the plant that we can look at?”

“Nope.  Cameras are only outside.”

Just then, my cell phone rang.  The security guys looked at me and then at my cell phone.  Normal cell phones don’t work inside the power block and certainly not in CAS or SAS.  They looked at me with something akin to awe, or at least with renewed respect.  At least, respect for my phone.

I pulled it out of my pocket and answered it in my usual curt manner.  “Connor.”

“This is Pete.  I got ‘em.  The wife and the kids are all okay.  Can’t say the same for the grunt guarding them.  His career as a mercenary is over.”

“Any collateral damage?”  This was my way of asking if he or the family sustained any wounds.

“Some, but not to the principles and nothing to worry about.”  I found out later that Pete went in through the bedroom window and some of the glass cut his arms.  “I’m taking them to the airport.  We’ll be wheels up in twenty.  We’ll touch down in Ukiah in a couple of hours.”

“Pete, that’s fantastic!  Great job!  Get your ass back up here.  I could use your help.  We’ve got something of a situation here.  Our buddy is nearby,” referring to Jansen.

“Yeah?  I’m looking forward to seeing him again!  I’ll get there soonest.  I need to get out of here before I get rolled up by the cops.  I made some noise.  It won’t be long before someone shows up,” Pete said, referring to the dead mercenary.  “I’m sure the neighbors won’t appreciate it.”

“Copy that.  One more thing.  I want you to pull the curtain back on Waxman Industries.  We have enough on them now to bury ‘em alive.  We just need to document it so we can finish what we started.”

“It’s been long enough, eh boss?”

“That it has.”  With that, I hung up.

I turned around and found everyone staring at me. “Hector, I need a plant phone.”

CHAPTER 53

 

I dialed Marti’s office number.  After a couple of rings, she answered. 

“I’m so glad to hear your voice!  Did Hector meet up with you?” she said anxiously.  She sounded surprisingly alert, given that she probably hadn’t had any sleep in a long time.  “He didn’t sound happy when I gave him your message.  I wasn’t sure if he would go or not.  And then it occurred to me that I had no way to get back in touch with you.  I wasn’t about to go back down there.”  I could almost here her shiver at the thought.

“We’re with him now.  Thanks for getting to him, by the way.  He almost shot us, but he came around,” I said with a wink at Hector.  “I’ll tell him you said hello!  What else do you have for me?”

“I’ve been in touch with the FBI and sheriff, trying to get as much information about what they’re planning to do as I can.”  There was a short pause, as if she was deciding whether or not to proceed with her next question.  Then she dropped her voice a bit and asked, “How are you doing?  Are you okay?”

I found that I liked her asking about me.  This had all the earmarks of going somewhere, but I just didn’t know where yet.  Thinking about her provided a pleasant, momentary distraction . . . but only for a moment.

“I’m good.  I need you to do something for me.  You’re gonna like this one.” 

“I am?  It’ll be the first thing I’ve enjoyed in the last few days.  What do you need?” 

“I need you to get to Dave Street and tell him his family is safe.  We got his wife and kids and they’re on a plane heading home right now.”

“Oh, Nick . . . ” she said with genuine emotion in her voice. 

“Can you make some kind of excuse to go to the control room and tell him?  I don’t want you to call him or e-mail him.  Those might be monitored.  The message needs to be delivered in person.”

“Absolutely!” Marti said, now fully awake and alert.  “I’ll do it right away.  Anything else?”

I thought about it for a minute.  “Probably, but do that first and then give me a call.  We’re in SAS right now, developing some intel, and formulating a plan.  I may need your help with it, but I need to think it through first.”

“I’ll call you back in about fifteen minutes,” Marti said.

I wished her luck, and then hung up.

While I was on the phone, the Old Man apparently had been thinking.  “Hector, is there any way you can pay particular attention to the containment emergency air lock on both units?  It would be good if, at a minimum, we don’t let them get inside.”

“Yes, I can.  But to do that, I’ll have to re-deploy some assets.  CAS will know and then Rob will surely find out.”

The Old Man looked at me.  “We may not have a choice.  Sooner or later they’re going to know we’re here.  All we can do is to get as far out in front of them as we can.  We may need to chance it.  I don’t know if they’re going to make a play for containment or not.  But we need to protect those assets . . . at all costs.”

“I hear you,” I said.  “But it doesn’t make sense.  If they have guys on the inside, the odds are they’re using tactical charges and don’t have enough with them to blow open the doors to containment.  They may have been relying on the outside assault force to bring in the amount of explosives they would need.  They’re out of the picture now and Jansen would have taken that into account.  Is there any other way to get into containment?”

The Old Man put his hand to his chin, looked down and away as if deep in thought.  “Well, you could possibly crawl through the ventilation system,” he said more to himself than to me. “But that would be difficult to do unnoticed.  And it would be a tough crawl.  There are screens and dampers in place, and the ductwork isn’t particularly big around.”

I looked at him with recognition in my eyes.  “Brenda’s husband is the containment ventilation engineer.  Is that what they wanted him for?”

“Possibly, but if they did, why kill Brenda?  They must have had something else in mind.  We’re overlooking something.  They must have another plan.”

Hector said in a sarcastic tone, “It’s not that hard if you have the keys.  Just go open the door.”  He wasn’t being serious.

I went still and looked at the Old Man. “What did Brenda do again?”  I knew I’d been missing something . . . something obvious. 

“You told me she was in Health Physics.”  Then the Old Man looked up in stunned silence.  The hair must have been standing up on the back of his neck, as it was mine.  He turned to Hector and growled, “Get me the number to Access Control.  Hurry!”

I said, “What do you have, Old Man?”

“Hector said it.  Open the door and walk right in!  I’m betting the keys to the containment airlock are missing.  That’s a high radiation area and those keys are controlled by HP, not Security!”

“Here it is,” Hector said as he held out a yellow-sticky with a four-digit plant number on it.

“Dial it, tell them who you are, and ask them to do an immediate inventory of their high rad area keys!”

As Hector dialed the number the Old Man looked at me.  “We’ve been looking at this all wrong!  They weren’t trying to get to the husband.  They were trying to get to her—probably through the husband.  If they have the keys, we need to get up there before they do.  If they get in, we’re screwed!”

“What’s the worst case scenario we’re looking at?” I asked with a deepening sense of foreboding.

“It could be a number of things.  But given that they can’t have much in the way of explosives, it’s got to be something small.  The most likely possibility is to destroy the seal package on one or more reactor coolant pumps.  Those seals keep the reactor coolant from leaking past the pump shaft and out into the containment.”

“Okay.  But from what you’ve told me, that coolant water isn’t a significant problem.  Bad, yes, but not the end of the world.”

“It’s not the water leaking into containment that worries me.  If they destroy the seal package with the reactor at power like it is now and the reactor coolant pumps running like they are, it’ll immediately depressurize the reactor coolant system.  The water will come out so fast and flash to steam, you wouldn’t be able to get out of containment before being parboiled, and that’s if you’re already standing by the door.”

“Won’t the reactor shut down when it senses that happening?  Isn’t protection built in for this kind of thing?”

“A leak, yes, but not for a complete failure of the seal package.  The water being released will come out with incredible velocity due to the pressure behind it.  It’ll be over 500 degrees and will flash to steam instantaneously, so it’ll act like a superheated steam torch.  With the reactor losing water and losing it so fast, the fuel will overheat with little or no water to cool it and get to a point where the zirconium metal encasing the fuel rods will literally start to burn.  When the zirconium reaches about 2,500 degrees, game over.  It’ll be generating it’s own heat and it’ll be impossible to stop.” 

The Old Man took a breath, during which I assumed he was done.  But then he went on.

“With all the water flashing to steam, the pressure in containment will go up to its maximum design pressure within minutes.  While it’s doing this, the burning fuel rods will release hydrogen.  That’ll combine with hydrogen that comes out of the water as the water molecules break down, as well as the hydrogen that’s normally injected into the reactor coolant system for chemistry control.  The hydrogen concentration in containment will reach explosive limits, which is only about six percent in air.  When it does, the hydrogen will spontaneously burn, causing an explosion that will generate a shock wave that will rip the containment dome apart, allowing the damaged nuclear fuel and the resulting highly contaminated fission products that are now leaving the confines of the reactor vessel to be released into containment, and then out into the environment.” 

I knew terrorism events could be bad, but I never knew the technical reasons why.  With the Old Man laying it out this way, my sense of dread increased. 

“This’ll create a dead zone around the plant that’ll extend at least twenty miles in all directions and last for tens of thousands of years,” the Old Man said solemnly.  “Nothing will be able to live inside that perimeter.”

The Old Man’s look of concern from a minute ago turned to something akin to fear as he related the possible scenario to me.  I didn’t know if I was becoming angry or afraid, but my stomach was starting to knot up. 

“And they can do this with the limited amount of explosives we think they have?” I asked, knowing the answer.

“Easily,” he said, “but only if they get inside containment.”

A moment later, Hector put the phone down.  He was ashen-faced.  “The spare keys to Unit 1 high rad areas are missing.  That includes the key to the containment emergency airlock!”

Just then, Jerry, who was looking for where the perpetrators might have gone, said, “Guys, we have a problem!”

CHAPTER 54

 

Marti put the phone down after talking with Nick.  She just couldn’t stop thinking about him.  It was all happening so fast, though, and under unusual conditions, but she wasn’t sure she cared about the reasons for the attraction.  All she knew was that she was drawn to this man and would very much like to see where it could go. 

She shook her head to clear it.  She had to focus.  Maybe things were starting to go their way.  She hoped so, anyway.  They still had some hurdles in front of them, but Nick was here, and that gave her a lot of confidence. 

She grabbed her hardhat and safety goggles and headed out to the control room to talk to Dave.  She frequently went there, so her appearance shouldn’t arouse suspicion—although almost anything tonight would seem unusual.  It depended on who was watching. 

It only took her a few minutes to cross the huge turbine deck and get to the control room.  Once there, she followed the process for entry and pushed the heavy door open.  Inside, she gave a cursory nod of her head to the control room operators who turned to see who was coming in at this time of night, then headed for the shift manager’s office located off to one side of the room.

She was all smiles as she entered the office and saw Dave sitting there, sullen and looking wrung out.  She knew the news she carried would lighten his mood considerably.  She fairly burst into his office, startled to see an armed responder sitting in a chair opposite Dave.  The man’s posture, looked casual to her, and he looked like he was there to provide some extra security for the control room.  His presence took her aback for a moment, but on reflection, seemed reasonable to her, given that the plant was under a verified security threat. 

Dave looked up at her, and said, “Ms. Callahan, you shouldn’t be in here.  Perhaps I can call you later?” It wasn’t really a question.

Marti looked at him and said, “But I have some great news you’re going to want to hear.” 

Suddenly something about the armed responder bothered her.  It was the same feeling she’d had when she saw those six men coming down from the warehouse earlier tonight.  It wasn’t that she recognized him, but she felt something akin to a cold shiver when she looked at him more closely.  Something wasn’t right.  It put her on guard, and she wasn’t sure she should speak in front of him.  It also occurred to her that she had never seen an armed responder in the control room before.  She wasn’t even sure it was authorized to bring weapons in there, security force or not. 

“Could I speak to you in private for a moment?” she said to Dave, no longer smiling.

Dave looked at the armed responder and then back at Marti.  “I’m afraid I’m busy right now.  Perhaps you could come back later?” he said, with insistence in his voice this time.

Despite her misgivings, Marti pressed on for a second time.  “What I need to discuss with you will only take a moment.  It’s important.”

“I understand you’re the NRC, but I told you I’m busy.  Now please leave the control room!” Dave commanded. 

It was inappropriate to treat the NRC resident that way.  He knew that, and was sure she did too.  Under normal conditions, he’d get in a lot of trouble for doing that, but he was trying to get her out of there, and fast. 

Marti hesitated, turned and looked again at the armed responder.  He wasn’t smiling; he was staring at Dave.  She suddenly had a sinking feeling in the hollow of her stomach and wanted to leave immediately, feeling an overwhelming urge to get out of there. 

“I’ll come back later then.”  She dropped her head, not wanting to make eye contact with anyone, as if doing so would give away her suspicions. 

As she turned to leave, the armed responder got up, moved in front of her, and gently closed the door to Dave’s office.  He looked at Marti and said, “sit down.”  It wasn’t a request.

Immediately on the defensive, and frightened, she said, “I will not!  I’m the senior resident here and I will be leaving now!”  

The armed responder reached out and grabbed her by the arm, led her to a chair, and pulled her arm down roughly until she was seated.

“You’ll be quiet and do as you are told,” he said as he moved in closer to her.  In almost a whisper, he said, “Do you understand?”

Marti’s eyes were wide open, as was her mouth.  She looked at Dave—who had a resigned look on his face—perhaps for comfort or support.  She received none.

He looked back at her dejectedly.  “I suggest you do as you’re told.  This man is not who he appears to be.”

It was very early in the morning, and Marti had been awake for a very long time, so her ability to process information was somewhat impaired, but she put the pieces together quickly.  The man was not a member of plant security, which meant he was one of the terrorists.  And if that was the case, the security of the control room had been compromised.  My God, she thought to herself!  The control room has just been taken over by a hostile force!  What’s more, it had been done very quietly.  It didn’t appear as if any of the control room watch-standers were even aware of it.  To them, it probably looked like it did to Marti initially—that he was there to protect them.  He certainly looked the part, being dressed the way the station security staff dressed.

All the elation Marti felt ten minutes ago vanished.  The plant was technically in a General Emergency, the highest of the four categories of emergencies at nuclear power plants.  The plant was under siege and nobody but Dave.  And now she knew it.

CHAPTER 55

 

Hector turned to Jerry and said impatiently, “What do you mean, we have a problem?”

Without turning around, Jerry replied, “I’ve found some doors being accessed to vital areas.  On any other night I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention, but given what’s going on tonight, I looked a bit deeper.  I pulled up the key cards of who was entering those areas.  It seems that we have six guys in the plant who are going in and out of sensitive areas.”

“What makes that so unusual?  We’re prepping for an outage.”

“Yes, but their key cards are tagged to security.  And they’re definitely not our guys.”

The Old Man said, “This is actually good news.  Now at least we know who we’re looking for and can trace where they’ve been and where they are.”

“Good work, Jerry,” I said with genuine appreciation.  “We’re going to need to know where those guys went in the last six hours.”

“Guys, you don’t get it yet,” Jerry warned.  “Whoever made their key cards for them gave them access to everywhere on site.  Even the operators don’t have that kind of access.”

With a sense of mounting dread, I looked at Jerry.  “Go on.”

“One of these guys entered the control room an hour ago and, according to the computer, is still in there.”

A wave of dread hit me like a jolt, as the reality of that news settled in. 

Hector virtually exploded.  “Rob!  That son of a bitch!”

The Old Man and I shared a quick, knowing look. “Marti!” was all I could say. 

The Old Man nodded his head.  “She should have called you back by now.  My guess is she’s in the shift manager office, and whoever’s in there, shouldn’t be, and isn’t going to let her go.”

This bothered me more than I imagined it would.  Probably more than with other hostage situations I’d faced.  I didn’t want these newfound feelings for this woman to interfere with my judgment.  I had to look at this logically and pragmatically.  Yeah, right!  I couldn’t ignore Marti, and I instantly knew I wasn’t going to waste time trying to.  Perhaps equally as important, I couldn’t ignore the situation in the control room.  The dynamics of the situation just changed.

“Jerry, we need a printout of everywhere those guys have been.”  Turning to the Old Man I said, “I need you to look over that list and see where you think they put any charges.  Prioritize the list.  Hector, I need you to put together a team of guys you can count on and go find the explosives these guys planted once the Old Man comes up with the list.  Can you do that?”

Hector didn’t hesitate.  “I’ve got at least five guys I’d stake my life on.  The rest, maybe but I’m not so sure.  How deep do you think this goes?”

“Rob couldn’t have done everything himself.  He’s probably had some help, though the odds are, that person is just a grunt who needed some money.  Rob probably knows that if too many people are involved there’s too much of a chance for a leak.  My guess is that whoever helped him is probably in a dumpster by now.  Rob won’t want to leave any loose ends lying around.”

“Then we’re going to have to chance it,” Hector said.  “I’ll round up my guys and brief them.”

“Just remember,” I said, “that the terrorists are still out there, and probably armed.”

“My guys are good, but we could use some help.”

“I’ve got a team standing by outside.  I can get them inside, but it would be nice if you didn’t shoot them.”

“I’ll do my best,” Hector said.  “Go ahead and get them in here as fast as you can.  If you can, get them to take up defensive positions outside the containment airlocks to start with.  I’ll have my guys do the internal search.  We know the plant better and can cover more ground than your guys.”

“I agree,” I said.  “I’ll get my guys moving.”

“One more thing,” Hector said before we split up.  “It’ll help if I know where your team is coming in from.”

“They’ll come in on the north side, just behind the Unit 1 transformers.”

“Won’t this cause Jansen to blow the charges he’s planted already?” Hector asked.

“We’re going to have to chance it. If we advance his timetable, it may throw him off balance, which would benefit us more than him.  You just need to find those explosives.  No matter where they are, they represent a very real danger to the plant.  We get those, and we’re almost home.”

The Old Man looked at me with a question he already knew the answer to.  “And what are you going to do?”

“I’m going to pay a visit to the control room.  Hector, I’m going to need a key card that’ll get me into the control room.  Tell me the control room has a back door . . . ?”

Hector said, “Yes, it does.  Nobody uses it but the operators and occasionally some instrument control techs.”

“Perfect!  How do I get there?”

“When you leave here, there’s a stairwell just outside the main control room door.  Take it down one flight to the door into the cable spreading room.  You’ll need a key card to get in there.  Once in, go straight across and you’ll come to another door, leading to the stairwell up to the back door.”

I looked at the Old Man; once again glad he was there.  “Where’s the shift manager’s office relative to that door?”

“It’s on the other side of the control room,” he said. “But that should be okay.  Once inside, you’ll be behind some instrument panels that’ll shield you from view of the control room operators.  You can slip around behind them and get very close to the shift manager’s office without being seen.  Go to the right and it’ll bring you right up to Dave’s door.  The operators may hear the door open but will likely not think too much about it.  But move quickly, in case they do.  Once inside, you’re on your own.”

I checked my Glock and made sure the magazine was fully loaded—something I already knew, but checked anyway.

“Hector, while Jerry is compiling the list, I need you to brief Prichard.  I imagine he’s in his office.  Tell him what you know and what we’re doing.  He needs the information.  Tell him I’ll talk to him later.”

“Okay,” Hector acknowledged. “But we don’t have any extra key cards just sitting around for you to use.  I’m going to need mine.  No way I’m sending my guys out in the field on this without me.”

Jerry pulled his off his lanyard.  “Here, use mine.  I’m not going anywhere.  And it’ll get you in anywhere you need to go.”

Hector frowned at yet another security violation but nodded his head in agreement.  He was way past worrying about the many rules already broken tonight. 

“Thanks, Jerry,” I said as I took the badge and key card and put them in my pocket. 

Then I got out my cell phone and dialed a secure number. 

“Red Two, this is Red One.  You are go for intrusion. North end of Unit 1 as planned.  Once inside, take up positions outside containment airlock Unit 1.”

“Copy that, Red One.  Does the security staff know we’re the good guys?”

“They’re being briefed, but no guarantees.  There are six, say again, six bad guys inside, dressed like armed responders, and carrying weapons.”

“You’re not making this easy on us, boss,” the Red Two leader said.

“Hey, if it was easy, the FBI would be doing it, right?  Give me five minutes, then go.”

“Copy that, boss.  Five minutes . . . hack.  Red Two out.”

I looked at everyone, giving them all a moment to provide any last input.  Hearing none, I gave a short nod to the Old Man and turned to leave SAS.

The Old Man grabbed me by the arm.  “That back door to the control room is heavy and is NOT quiet.  Someone will hear it open.  They may not see you but they will hear you.  You won’t have much time once you open it.”

I looked at him and a moment passed between us. 

“Understood.”

With that, I left the confines of the secondary alarm station.  It was time to engage the enemy.  And God help them. Now it had become personal. 

CHAPTER 56

 

I literally ran out of the SAS building, found the stairwell outside the main control room door as Hector had described, and went down a flight of stairs.  A secure door was on the landing.  I used Jerry’s key card, and the door clicked open.  Inside I found a maze of conduits and wire runs hanging from the ceiling.  This must be the cable spreading room that Hector had described.  I hurried to the other side of the room, trying not to hit my head as I went, and found the door out, leading to the other stairwell.  I bounded up two stairs at a time to the back door of the control room. 

As the Old Man had said, it looked heavy and well reinforced.  I wasn’t familiar with the control room layout, so I had to go with what the Old Man had told me.  I usually did more planning than this, but it couldn’t be helped.  Speed and surprise were my best assets right now.

Just outside the door, I saw a hand geometry station near the keypad for the door.  I had a key card but my hand would not be the one associated with it.  Damn it!  I immediately got out my cell phone and called the number for SAS

“Jerry, Nick.  We’ve got another problem.  There’s a hand geometry station on the door to the control room.  Can you override it?”

“Yeah.  Things were happening so fast, I forgot that.  Wait one . . . ” Jerry said. 

As I stood there, I flashed back to a previous mission.  [_No time.  No time. _] My team was in trouble.  I had to move and I had to go in the door where they were and count on the fact that the enemy wasn’t expecting me.  Only this time it wasn’t Eric, it was Marti.  I had a visceral reaction to the flashback and almost threw up.  Part of my post-traumatic-stress-disorder.  At least, that’s what the doc thought.  Get a grip!  Fuck it!

I heard Jerry talking to me again.  “Nick? Nick, are you there?”

“Sorry.  Yeah, I’m here . . . ”

“I’ve disabled the hand geometry station.  You should be able to get in with just my key card.”

“Good work.  Thanks!”

“Yeah, but you better hurry.  This isn’t something I can hide from CAS.  They’re going to be calling me in a minute to find out what’s going on.”

“Copy that,” I said and hung up.

Gun in hand, I closed my eyes for a moment and slowed my breathing.  This barely took a few seconds, but it was time well spent.  I felt my muscles relax which was what I wanted right now. 

I opened my eyes and swiped the key card.  The control room door clicked open.  I pushed the heavy door open and slipped inside the nerve center of the nuclear station.  Despite my best efforts, the door closed with a dull thud, which sounded like a clap of thunder to me.  I looked to my right and saw the 10-foot-tall instrument panels that the Old Man had described.  I ducked behind them and worked my way round to the end.  It only took a few seconds. 

I peered around the corner and saw I was just outside what I assumed was the shift manager’s office.  The door, which had a window in it, was closed and I couldn’t see inside.  If I poked my head out too far the control room operators would surely see me.  I looked at my watch.  The five minutes I gave Red Two was almost up.  I waited, hoping none of the operators on watch would need to come behind these instrument panels for any reason. 

 

  • * * * *

 

Red Two was in position.  Each team member had a target he needed to get to once inside the perimeter. 

There were cameras in strategic locations designed to allow the station security force to observe intruders and direct their forces to intercept.  In Nick’s evaluation, he found that an assault force could shoot out those cameras, which would blind the CAS operators.  This was precisely what Red Two was planning to do.  It should allow the team a few extra seconds to get to where they needed to be. 

The team members had on their lightweight Kevlar body armor, but only ball caps and no helmets.  They’d anticipated hostile fire and believed it was prudent to take some precautions.  It made them heavier and a bit slower, but nothing they weren’t used to.  

The Red Two team leader looked at his watch.  Five minutes was up.  With a wave of his hand, he gave his team the signal to initiate the assault. 

One man activated a switch, which triggered a small charge attached to the five-gallon gas tank used to feed the outboard motor that Nick left in the launch at the intake structure.  The resulting explosion created a forty-foot-high fireball with dense black smoke and a chest-thumping shock wave.  That would redirect Security for a few minutes.  Misdirection and confusion—the fog of war.

CHAPTER 57

 

Hector used his radio to contact the five men he knew he could trust.  He told them to rendezvous with him at SAS ASAP.  He had no choice but to do this over an open radio channel.  He then called Lynn, the watch commander, who’d taken up station inside CAS while he was gone.  Standard protocol.  He told her what little he could in a few short seconds to get her on his side.  Again, if he was going to help Nick’s team, he needed to get his security force to back off.  He knew this was going to be a challenge because it went against the grain of their training.  Lynn sounded incredulous and started asking questions, but she was interrupted by the report of an explosion at the intake.

Hector could hear the CAS operator in the background.  “Explosion at the intake, boss!” he shouted to Lynn.  “I’ve got the camera on it.  Definitely smoke from down there.  Something big just happened.”

“Is that you, Hector?” she asked anxiously.

“I wasn’t briefed on that, but I suggest you take action in that direction.”  Hector didn’t know if this was Nick or not, but the fact that Nick didn’t tell him about it didn’t mean it was an oversight.  He didn’t think Nick made too many mistakes.  Perhaps he’d wanted the security people to turn their attention down there.  Then it made sense.  Combat tactics.  By doing that, Nick could give his men coming in through the fence a little breathing room. 

“Damn it, Hector, I need to know what the hell is going on!” Lynn insisted.  “Get your ass over here.  Now!  I gotta go!”  With that she hung up.

Hector put down the phone.  He couldn’t worry about her right now.  He had a part in all of this, and he’d be damned if he wasn’t going to do his level best.  He needed to find those six Waxman perps and shut them down.  He’d deal with Lynn later.

Back in CAS, Lynn turned all her attention to the two security operators who were feverishly scanning their camera feeds and listening to radio chatter.

“Any intruders?”

“None observed.”

“Okay.  Just in case, redeploy the Delta responders per procedure.  I’ll make a PA announcement.”

The CAS operator started methodically moving his people around the plant like pieces on a chessboard, to cover a possible assault from the intake structure.  But an attack from that location was unlikely.  It didn’t make any sense.  Security strategies were in place that would keep the plant secure from any possible assault from that direction.  Regardless of whether the security people believed this was a legitimate threat, they were at a heightened state of awareness all the same. 

If security was feeling calm and confident in their ability to repel an attack from the intake, something happened at that moment that caused a cold shudder to run up their spines.

RED NORTH! RED NORTH!” the CAS operator shouted, both for the room and into the radio.  “We have an intrusion on the north side of the plant!  Go! Go! Go!”

Lynn went silent as fear set in.  No matter how often you train for an incursion, your first reaction is that it can’t possibly be happening.  It must be a mistake.  That hesitation can cost precious seconds in a situation that had none to spare. 

She asked for confirmatory information.  “Where are they, and how many?”

“I don’t know yet, boss.  They took out our cameras in that area.  We’re blind up there and seeing only white.  But they triggered the microwave link.  So we know they’re there.”

Lynn reached for her procedures with shaking hands, fear temporarily blinding her as to what to do next.  She had an explosion at the intake, an incursion on the north side, cameras that were somehow blinded—and Hector knew something about all this that he wasn’t sharing. 

Then the reports started coming in from the field.  This was not a mistake or an equipment failure.  This was happening for real.

“This is Delta 2!  Perps are inside the fence.  I make that six, say again six perps.  Looks like they’re heading for the aux building Unit 1!  Moving fast.  This is no drill.  Repeat, this is no drill!”

Lynn’s blood pressure skyrocketed.  She started to process all this.  Hector had given her a heads up, but there were actual explosions and people coming onto the site.  It was all happening too fast.  She was out of her depth and she knew it.

“This is Delta 4.  I got ‘em.  Moving to intercept.  Shots fired!”

 

  • * * * *

 

I heard a PA announcement from my position behind the boards in the control room. 

“Security event in progress!  All personnel stand fast.  Do not move.  Security event in progress!” 

That was my cue.  I took a breath, let it out, and with both hands holding the Glock out in front of me, I moved out from behind the boards and toward the door to the shift manager’s office. 

As soon as I stepped out from behind the boards, a control room operator spotted me and shouted, “Gun! Gun in the control room!” 

He shouted loudly but took no action against me.  These were technical people, not soldiers, and I counted on them not approaching me, so I ignored them.  They were no immediate threat to me, other than giving away my presence there. 

I looked into the shift manager’s office and saw Dave and Marti sitting in chairs, stone-faced and worried.  Despite the announcement, they hadn’t moved, confirming that someone was in there with them.  I immediately scanned as much of the room as I could.  Then I saw him—the armed responder sitting across from the two hostages.  The man turned and saw me at almost the same time.  He moved to stand up and tried to bring his weapon to bear on me.  He was too late. 

My world and everything in it slowed down. Operating on years of training now, my weapon was already up and aimed directly at his chest.  Without hesitation, I opened fire.  The first bullet through the glass shattered it, sending shards all over the room.  This momentarily caused me to loose sight of the man.  The best I could do was to continue to fire where he’d been standing and hope that once the glass broke the next five rounds would find their target.

That’s exactly what happened.  The man was knocked backward from the force of the bullets, arms splaying wildly over his head as he lost his balance . . . and consciousness.  He fell over the chair he’d been sitting in and crumpled to the floor. 

The operators in the control room were transfixed and stopped shouting.  They didn’t know who I was but they were sure I’d just opened fire in the control room, into the shift manager’s office!  I knew their shock would wear off quickly, and I needed them to know I was on their side. 

Weapon still at the ready, I shouted, “US Army!  Stand down, gentlemen!”  I wasn’t really, but knew that would give them some sense that I was on their side.

My attention was still on the terrorist on the floor as I moved quickly into the shift manager’s office and cleared the room by looking around and seeing no one other than Dave and Marti.  Jansen’s man was dead and presented no further threat.  Glass and the acrid smell of gunpowder was everywhere.

I lowered my weapon and relaxed my posture.  Marti flew into my arms and hugged me this time, not caring who was watching.  I liked that very much and wrapped a free arm around her waist to pull her in.  There was a dichotomy about her softness as she rested in my arms, and the hardness I felt as a warrior who’d just shot a man to death. 

Without letting her go, I looked at Dave and said, “Please go out there and tell your boys I’m on your side.  Do it quickly.”

Dave did just that.  The control room operators didn’t know what to do but took comfort in the fact that their shift manager was alive, unharmed, and standing in front of them telling them they were okay.

Marti eased up on her hug but didn’t completely let go of me.  She blinked back tears in her eyes.  I looked at her and held her gaze, wanting nothing more than to kiss her.  By the pleading in her eyes, I was sure she wanted the same thing. But this wasn’t the time. 

I gently released her from my grasp but slid my hand down to take hold of her warm and trembling hand.  I stepped back slightly and looked at her now with a more clinical view, to make sure she was unharmed. 

“Are you okay?”  I asked.

All she could do was nod her head. 

Satisfied that she was, I told her, “Stay in the control room.  You’ll be safe here.”

As hard as it was, I released her hand and stepped into the control room.  Dave was standing there, looking haggard and worn. 

I gave him a warm smile. “Your family is safe.  They’re on their way to Ukiah with a member of my team.  You can talk with them in a bit.  But right now, the plant is under attack.”

Dave’s mouth fell open as he stood there looking dumbfounded.  ‘Your family is safe’ was all he heard.  But he also had a dead guy on the floor of his office.  And the plant was under attack.  That was a lot to process for anyone. 

“You’re sure my wife and kids are okay?”

“Yes sir.  That’s what Marti was on her way over here to tell you.”

Unabashed tears of relief started to stream down Dave’s face.  He hung his head for a moment, sobbed a bit, and tried to gather himself.  He knew everyone was staring at him.  They had no idea what was going on.  He looked up at me again. 

“I suggest you brief your crew.  Marti can stay here to help you with that.”  I knew that familiar faces were important right now.  And I needed to leave the control room.  I had something else I needed to do.  “The best thing you can do,” I added, “is to stay calm, stay here, and keep the unit on line.  Keep the doors closed and lock them if that’s possible.  There may be explosive charges placed in the plant, and we’re looking for them right now.”

Dave said, “We can inflate the door seals.  Nobody will be able to get through them once we do that.”

“Good.  I have your private number.  I’ll use that if I need to get in touch with you.”

Marti came out of the shift manager’s office looking drained and exhausted and took hold of my hand.  She gave it a squeeze as if to convey a message that we’d see each other again. 

With that, I left the control room.  It was time to end this. 

CHAPTER 58

 

Rob reacted to the PA announcement about the security intrusion with dread.  Something was terribly wrong.  By the look on Jansen’s face, he could tell he was just as taken aback by it.

“Who the hell is assaulting the plant perimeter and why?  Is this your doing?” Rob asked, knowing immediately that it was a stupid question to be asking the terrorist sitting across from him. 

Jansen didn’t answer, so Rob continued, as if saying it aloud would somehow make it all make sense.

“It’s not the FBI.  They surely wouldn’t come in like this.  And it can’t be your men.  You told me you lost touch with your team.  Is this some stupid backup plan you had if you lost contact with them?  Or did they decide to act on their own for some reason?”

Jansen still didn’t answer and just sat there, stone-faced. 

Rob was staring at his phone, willing it to ring so he could find out what was going on.  It wasn’t ringing.  He knew calling CAS was the wrong thing to do.  He’d trained the CAS operators not to answer calls during situations like this.  At least, not in drills.  But he needed information.  Only one way to get it now. 

“Fuck it!  I’m going over to CAS and get some answers,” Rob said impatiently.  As he got up, he looked one last time at Jansen, as if expecting something . . . anything.  Jansen said nothing to him.  Rob was furious at the man and his apparent laze’ faire attitude.  He left him sitting there and hurried out of the room.

Jansen watched him leave, glad to be rid of him, though starting to wonder just what was going on.  He realized his plan was unraveling.  First he loses contact with his men.  Now this.  It might still be possible to get away with this, but it’d take some improvising now.  If everyone didn’t panic, this still might work.  The FBI and local law enforcement would be showing up soon—sooner than expected.  They’ll still want to evacuate the site and turn it into a crime scene.  They’ll most likely evacuate everyone to an off-site location, with the help of some armed responders from the site, and want to question everyone there.  That would be his opportunity to slip away, along with his team members who would be acting as the armed responders helping get people off site. 

He decided it was best to wait right there for the time being.  Nobody will think the security manager’s office was harboring the leader of the assault force.  His guys were supposed to rendezvous with him there when their jobs were done, anyway.  Given what was going on right now, they may opt to stop and regroup with him to decide what to do.  In a few minutes, he’d have a small army around him.

CHAPTER 59

 

Jerry was trying to concentrate on his task, which was to find where Jansen’s team had been in the last couple of hours.  He’d managed to put together a short list of vital areas that had been entered, cross-referenced the badge numbers, and found that the guys who’d entered all those areas were Waxman Industries contractors.  That was it.  He had the information he’d been looking for.  He knew where they’d been, and it wasn’t good.

Worried now, Jerry turned around and gave the list to the Old Man.  As he did so, he looked more closely at the person in front of him.  He still didn’t know who this guy was—he was clearly not the usual contractor type they got to help out at the plant.  He was much too old and looked like he should be retired, not running around a nuclear plant under attack.  But he was there and seemed to be in the know.  Jerry was past trying to figure it all out.  There was a problem and the gentleman standing next to him was—hopefully—going to help them out. 

The Old Man took the list and looked at it anxiously. As expected, there were doors that had been opened into the vital emergency diesel generator rooms.  Explosives there would damage backup power to vital equipment.  One guy could have gone in all three D/G rooms easily enough. 

Further down the list were a couple of places in the auxiliary building, inside the radiological controlled area.  Two of those areas seemed to be unimportant, at least as far as vital equipment was concerned.  The Old Man reasoned that they might be used to create a distraction or spread contamination around.  They were in areas related to radiological waste systems. 

Then he saw what he was looking for, but hoping he wouldn’t find; the emergency air lock vestibule outer door on Unit 1.  Shit!  He knew a door like that would have an alarm on it, so control room personnel would know if anyone had opened the door.  He needed to confirm that, on the remote chance the computer was in error. 

“Call the control room and find out if the Unit 1 emergency airlock has been opened recently,” he said.  “They should have an alarm on it.”

Jerry speed-dialed a number.  “This is Jerry Sims in SAS.  Did you recently get an alarm on Unit 1 containment emergency airlock?”

The Old Man was watching Jerry.  It was a short conversation.  Jerry thanked the person on the other end of the line, hung up, and said, “The Unit 1 containment emergency airlock door had just been opened prior to the security event that’s in progress.  They were going to send someone out to check on it, but with the security lockdown in progress, they hadn’t done anything yet.”

That call must have prompted a discussion in the control room too, because moments later the SAS phone rang.  Dave was now on the phone.

“This is Dave Street, shift manager.  Who’s in charge in there?”

Jerry said, “Hector’s in charge.”

“Let me speak to him, quickly.”

Hector took the phone.  “This is Hector.”

“Hector, this is Street.  I’m declaring a General Emergency.  People tried to take over the control room.  We have one fatality; a terrorist.  We’ve secured the control room.  I’m notifying State and County authorities.”

Hector breathed out a sigh of relief.  He’d been waiting for some kind of confirmation.  “So I assume by your comment that Nick was successful?”

After a moment of silence, Dave said, “Hector, what the hell’s going on?”

“We don’t have a lot of time, Dave.  We’ve confirmed we have terrorists inside the plant and assume they’ve planted bombs, probably on Unit 1.  They may also be inside Unit 1 containment by now.  That’s why we were checking on the door alarm.  I know this is bad, but we’re working on it.”

“Who else is involved in this?  How deep does this go?  I’ve got guys out in the plant.  What should I tell them?  Are they going to be safe?”

“Working on it,” Hector responded.  “ But don’t make any PA announcements for the time being.  Call your guys by phone if you can, and tell them to stay put, don’t move around the plant.  If they move around they’re going to look a lot like targets and that’s only going to make our job more difficult.”

“I’ll do my best.  What else can I do?  Do we want to bring in the local law enforcement?”

“No!  We need to contain this situation.  And I really need to go.  Keep the control room safe.  We’ll be in touch.” 

With that, Hector hung up the phone.  He had no time for outside people trying to assist them.  He had immediate problems and needed to get moving on them. 

As Hector was talking on the phone, several of his men showed up in SAS, looking serious, weapons in hand, and unsure of the identity of the older man standing in front of them.  It was crowded in the small space, and that made the men even more uncomfortable.  One brought his weapon up, not sure if SAS was secure or not.

The Old Man said, “Hector, tell your guys I’m with you!”

Hector said authoritatively, “Lower your weapons.  He’s okay.”

They still showed skepticism but relaxed their posture.  They didn’t know what was going on; but whatever it was, they knew it was highly irregular and probably illegal.  But they knew Hector, and, for the moment, that was good enough for them.  Deep down, many of them yearned for a fight.  They had trained for years and this was an opportunity for them to put their skills and training to the test.  Far from hesitant, they were anxious to get in the game.

The Old Man turned to Hector.  “You need to get me to the Unit 1 emergency airlock.  Can you do that, and I mean, now?”

Hector knew immediately what he was planning to do.  “Okay, but I’m going with you.”

The Old Man looked at the determination in Hector’s eyes.  “This is bad, you know.  If we’re lucky enough to get in there before something blows up, we may not get out of there in one piece.”

“We’re wasting time.  You ready?”

The Old Man nodded his head.

Hector said, “Before we go, what do you want my guys to do?”

Looking at the grim faces around him, he said, “We need you to look at the emergency diesel generators on Unit 1.  We’re pretty sure there are explosive devices hidden there.  And shut down access to the radiological controlled area for the same reason.  Jerry has a list of the locations the bad guys went into.  He can brief you.  Those are the areas that need to be cleared.”

Hector looked at his men.  “Any questions?  This is as real as it gets, guys,” then turned his head and nodded to Jerry.  With grim resolve on his face, he looked at the Old Man.  “Let’s go!”

CHAPTER 60

 

Red Two played it by the book written by Nick; shoot out the cameras if possible, cut a hole in the fence, and charge through the plant’s outer defenses.  Within seconds, the team members found themselves inside the plant perimeter.  Without hesitation, they took off at a run and headed for a stairwell near the back of the auxiliary building that they were told would lead to the Unit 1 containment emergency airlock.  In the confusion and delays from the intake ruse, and the incapacitated camera system, they were able to get across the yard and move up the stairs with no shots being fired at them. 

They were prepared to return fire to keep people at bay, but only if they had to.  They didn’t know who the good guys were and who the terrorists were—everyone was likely to be dressed the same way.  They could have used rubber bullets, but to do that they would have had to change out the bolts in their rifles—and the rubber bullets were only good for a limited range.  They had to safeguard the good guys, but they also needed deadly force for the terrorists, should they encounter any.  They’d have to be at the top of their game to distinguish between them.  A moment’s hesitation could cost someone their life.

At the top of the stairs, Hays, the Red Two team leader, noticed the vestibule door to the emergency airlock was open.  Shit!  They were too late.  Someone had already gotten inside.  Hays knew they’d have to go in after him.  Whoever was in containment now was the enemy, and the gloves were off. 

“Henderson, with me.  Pak, cordon off this area.  Nobody gets in or out!”

“Copy that, boss,” said Pak.

Hays and Henderson worked their way carefully over to the airlock.  They were just about there when their earpieces squawked. 

In a quiet voice, they heard, “Danger close.  Danger close!  Two guys approaching, one in uniform, one in civilian clothes.  Both armed.”

“Is the guy in civilian clothes an older guy?” Hays asked.

“That’s affirm.”

“Hold your fire!  I think he’s one of us.”

As Hector and the Old Man came running up, Hays stepped out of the shadows and said, “Stop right there!  Identify yourselves.  Don’t do anything.  There are several guns on you.”

The Old Man spoke up, “Code word is green.” 

“Response is blue,” said Hays as he lowered his weapon. 

Hector wasn’t so sure.  The Old Man turned to him and said, “These guys are Nick’s team.  They’re the good guys”

Hector looked over the situation, saw the door to containment open, and immediately got on the radio.  He knew this would be broadcast in the clear and that CAS and whoever else was listening would hear him.  At this point, it couldn’t be helped and probably didn’t matter. 

“All units, this is Hector.  Unit 1 containment emergency airlock outer door is open.  I’m on scene but containment has been compromised.  Say again, Unit 1 containment compromised.  Stand fast.  Do not fire on anyone in this area.  Area secured by friendlies.”

A short pause, followed by, “What?  Just who the hell are ‘friendlies’?  What the hell is going on Hector?”

“Do as you’re told, God damn it!  I don’t have time for this!  Hold your fire in this vicinity, do you copy?”

A brief pause, followed by “Copy that, Hector,” as the central alarm station radio operator relayed that information to the rest of the security force.  Hector breathed a sigh of relief.  This was some treacherous ground he was standing on.  God help him if he was wrong about any of this. 

The Headlands Delta responders stopped in their tracks, not knowing what the hell was going on.  Several of them called CAS to confirm the order to stand fast.  The fence had just been blown open, and they didn’t like the idea of doing nothing.  This wasn’t right. 

“I said stand fast!  Good guys are holding containment.  Stand clear!”

The Old Man went over to Hays.  “How long have you been here?”

“Just got here, sir.”

“The door wasn’t opened too long ago.  We have to assume the terrorist is still in there then.  We need to get him out.  Preferably alive so we can ask him where he planted his charge.”

“Copy that.  What else do we know?” asked Hays, as Hector came over to join the discussion.

The Old Man said, “One guy in there, armed, probably carrying explosives.  The control room was compromised, but Nick took care of that.  The plant’s under attack, gentlemen, and we must get inside and stop the guy before he can do what he was sent in there to do.” 

“What’s the plan?” Hays asked, knowing only that this old man in front of him was an extension of Nick.

“We’ll make two teams.  I’ll take Hector with me.  You two guys go together.  There are two stairwells.  We each take one.  Odds are he’s near the lower level, near the reactor coolant pumps.  They would be the easiest things to damage with a small charge.  We know where to look, so we’ll do the searching.  You guys secure that back stairwell.” 

Hays looked at him and just nodded his head.

“One more thing.  It’s going to be very hot and very loud in there.  We won’t be able to talk well unless right in front of each other.  Don’t use your comm gear.  The radio interference may trigger a reactor shutdown by tripping sensitive reactor trip relays.  The reactor is still on line.  If you stay outside the bio shield, which is the outermost walkway, you’ll be okay.  If you have to go inside, toward the reactor, radiation levels will go up dramatically. Radiation kills, gentlemen.  You won’t see it or feel it.  If you start to get a metallic taste in your mouth, get the hell out of there.  If you must go in, limit your stay time to a few minutes only, understand?”

The Old Man paused.

“Gentlemen, I don’t have to tell you that if something happens while we’re in there, we won’t be able to open the doors to get out.  We have to contain things inside containment at all costs.  Do not open those doors.  Are we clear?”

He looked each man in the eyes.  He saw no hesitation whatsoever—only determination. 

“Let’s go,” said Hays.

The Old Man nodded.  He marveled at the courage of the men beside him, and felt a deep sense of pride in being associated with them.  That pride gave him confidence that they would succeed.

He walked over and led them into the already unlocked labyrinth that led to the outer of two airlock doors.  He flipped a switch that looked like a light switch, then looked through the deadlight and saw that the inside door was closed.  That was good.  If it were open, the interlock, which prevented more than one door from being open at a time, would have prohibited them from opening the outer door.  The guy who went in probably didn’t know that and just instinctively closed the inner door behind him.

The Old Man reached up to the side of what looked like the main door hand-wheel and opened a small valve to equalize the pressure across the door.  They could hear a small hiss as the air escaped from the area between the doors.  A minute later, the hissing stopped and the Old Man read a gauge, which told him the pressure had been equalized. 

Gripping the hand-wheel, he rotated it counterclockwise to open.  A few turns later, he could see the dogs holding the door in place release, and the massive door swung open gently and easily.  It opened inward so that any pressure from inside containment would push on it to keep it closed.  They all stepped over the lip of the watertight door and into an inner chamber.  Once inside, the Old Man closed the door behind them and spun the hand-wheel clockwise to dog the hatches.  If anyone was claustrophobic, this would be a bad time to realize it.

The Old Man moved to the inner door and repeated the process to equalize the pressure across the door with the inside of containment.  He then swung the huge inner door open and they stepped across the threshold and inside the massive Unit 1 reactor containment building. 

CHAPTER 61

 

The Old Man knew what he was talking about, Hays thought to himself, as they stepped inside containment, feeling as well as hearing the noise level increase dramatically.  Talking even face-to-face would be difficult.  The Old Man told them it would be hot and loud but didn’t mention the vibration.  Hays had spent time in Iraq, and it was hot in the extreme there during the day.  This was similar, only manmade, which somehow made it seem worse.  Fans blew the air around, but that did nothing to make it feel any cooler to him.  Add the vibration, which seemed to be coming from everywhere, and the combination of all three has an eerie effect on him.  It upset his inner ear, which could trigger vertigo and nausea.  He didn’t know how people withstood this, but then, people weren’t supposed to be in here while the reactor was at power.  All Hays could do was focus on their mission and getting the hell out of there as soon as he could.  It occurred to him that the terrorist they were after would be suffering from the same effects.  That may slow him down a bit.  It would not slow down Hays or Henderson. 

The interior space felt huge, towering more than 230 feet above them.  It was mostly open space, with all the equipment either on their level or below.  A huge crane rose up from the floor and extended over a hundred feet up into the dome.  Two large stainless steel pieces of equipment stood to their right.  A sign identified them as [_‘Hydrogen Recombiners.’ _] There were fire hoses on the wall, and the floor was coated in some epoxy coating that made it look shiny and clean. 

Directly ahead appeared to be a very large opening in the floor.  Some sort of mechanical cover was in place over it.  Signs permanently attached to the concrete structures adjacent to the opening said [_‘Danger Very High Radiation Area.  Stay Clear.’ _] Below the signs were metal placards with a magenta-colored tri-foil on a yellow background. The team had seen similar placards before.  They were in various areas throughout the plant and were used to signify radiation.  Without knowing more, Hays and Henderson understood that going beyond that point was forbidden and clearly life threatening.

The Old Man saw them looking at it.  He moved nearer to them and hollered, “That’s a movable shield!  Below that is the top of the reactor vessel!”

That was the heart and soul of the nuclear power plant.  As the Old Man reminded them, they couldn’t see the radiation, taste it or touch it, but they knew it was here.  And they knew it could kill them.  

The Old Man gave them a few seconds to get their bearings and look around.  He knew how intimidating it was in there.  He needed them to get over it, though, and quickly. 

He motioned to Hays and Henderson to take the stairwell he pointed to on the far side of containment.  Likely as not, the terrorist went down the near one.  He and Hector would take that one.  Hays nodded and moved off as instructed. 

The Old Man motioned to Hector that they’d head down the nearest stairwell.  He stepped out to head downstairs when Hector suddenly grabbed his arm and stopped him.  Without words, Hector moved to the front, weapon up, and headed slowly and cautiously down the stairwell to the levels below.  The Old Man understood and followed Hectors lead. 

Each of them carried a weapon.  Hector was carrying a semi-automatic rifle, similar to the military M-16.  He had it unslung and at the ready.  The Old Man had his Glock.  He didn’t expect to have to use it.  That’s why Hector was along. But he knew how, and it just made sense to come armed. 

It was to their advantage to get off the stairwell quickly, so they could take cover if fired on.  They didn’t think the perp would be expecting them, so they had the element of surprise on their side.  But the perp knew where he wanted to go and they didn’t.  This was a huge building, and trying to find someone in there that you couldn’t hear coming was a challenge. 

They headed down the open tread, metal stairs, moving cautiously, looking all around them as they went.  The Old Man touched the handrail and pulled his hand back immediately, the ambient heat causing the handrail to be very hot to the touch. 

The stairs were a typical switchback pattern.  Each level had the stairs go halfway down, then turn and double back the other way.  They went down one level, stopped, and looked around.  Nothing and nobody.  They were on a landing that headed off around the outside of the containment, allowing access to various pieces of equipment and valves.  Huge pipes and electrical conduit ran through the overhead because it was better for almost everything to be as far to the outside of this structure as possible.  Radiation affected metal and electrical components just as easily as it affected a human being.  The high-energy particles made no distinction.  The photons, gamma rays, and neutrons given off by the subatomic chain reaction inside the nuclear core would interact with molecules of any structure, and through the energy it imparted, would sooner or later destroy whatever it came in contact with.

Hector looked at the Old Man, who indicated they needed to go down yet another level.  What they were looking for was not up here.  Hector nodded and slowly headed down the next set of stairs.  He wasn’t sure if it was getting hotter, but it surely wasn’t getting cooler.  It had to be 115 or 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and he was sweating profusely. 

They dropped down another level.  The stairs and the landings were made of open metal grating.  The effect of this was that you could see up and down through it, so there was no good visual reference other than the walls next to them. Hector found that his eyes were constantly trying to refocus, first close in and then on something far away through the grating.  Maybe the vibration was getting to him.  Whatever, he started to feel a bit nauseous. 

As they neared the bottom of the stairs, they exited the stairwell to a concrete floor, which Hector assumed was the bottom of containment.  It was, at least, as far down as they could go.  That’s when they saw him, about 30 feet away.  A man, maybe six-foot-two, 190 pounds, wearing a black security jumpsuit, was coming out from inside the large concrete biological shield that surrounded the reactor, about where the Old Man guessed he would be.  The faux security officer saw them about the same time Hector and the Old Man saw him.  The man pointed his weapon at them and fired.  Even in containment with all the ambient noise, the sound of a shot being fired was very distinct. 

Hector grabbed the Old Man and ducked off to one side, more out of instinct than to seek protection, as there really wasn’t any.  They knew they were sitting ducks where they were.  Fortunately for them, the shot went wide, with the bullet hitting part of the metal support structure for the stairs and ricocheting away harmlessly.  Looking back, they saw the guy duck back inside the bio-shield, no doubt to get out of their way as he was sure Hector would return fire if given a chance. 

Hector moved ahead, with the Old Man just behind.  They positioned themselves on the other side of the opening the guy had popped out of, so they weren’t where they were the last time he’d seen them, in case he came back out.  They stood there, slightly bent at the waist, guns up and ready, waiting. Nothing.  The man didn’t show himself again.  They listened for him but of course couldn’t hear a thing other than the deafening background noise from the machinery. 

They waited for a full minute, not knowing what to expect next.  They knew they couldn’t stay there just waiting for the guy to show himself.  Hector looked at the Old Man and motioned that he was going in, getting a knowing nod in return.  Rifle out in front, he moved slowly ahead, into the room the perp had come from.  The Old Man followed him in.

It was something of a maze inside the bio-shield, with concrete walls that were over four feet thick, and it was even hotter and noisier than outside.  Radiation levels were higher too because of the proximity to the reactor coolant and the core itself.  The perp would have had to move fast to do what he’d come to do and get out of there before he received enough radiation exposure to cause blood changes and start breaking down his DNA—as would Hector and the Old Man.

They moved forward into the labyrinth, as cautiously as they could, knowing that time was of the essence.  They didn’t know where the man was and they were risking getting shot by moving ahead, but the consequences of not stopping him and what he came to do outweighed the personal risk they faced. 

The ambient noise made sneaking around easier.  It was virtually impossible to hear them coming.  Hector and the Old Man only had a few feet to cover, and either the guy was in there waiting for them, or he was gone, looking for the other stairwell, which they assumed he must have known about. They almost stumbled into the 1-2 reactor coolant pump seal room.  Hector looked around quickly and cleared the room.  Nobody was there. 

A minute later, they heard the familiar sound of gunshots—two reports in rapid succession.  They instinctively ducked, but the sound came from somewhere else.  Somewhere distant.  They could only assume that Hays and Henderson encountered the perp trying to escape by the back stairwell.  Two shots.  No more.  It could have gone either way.  It was hard for them to believe that Hays and Henderson were killed, but Hector and the Old Man didn’t know for sure.  It was possible the perp took them out to clear his back door and was coming back here to ensure his objective was achieved.  Or he was on his way out of containment, away from the blast site. 

On the off chance he might be returning, the Old Man shouted at Hector to keep an eye out, while he looked around to find the explosive.  Hector looked for some sort of cover but found none.  The only thing he knew was that the terrorist hadn’t left the way he’d come in.  So it stood to reason that if he returned, he’d come in the only other way possible.  Hector crouched down on one knee and took aim on the back entry to this area, hoping they wouldn’t be there long. 

The Old Man looked around inside the bio-shield and located the mechanical seal on the shaft of the 1-2 reactor coolant pump.   The three-stage seal assembly kept 500 degree, highly contaminated water from leaking past the shaft and coming out into the containment environment.  If the seals were damaged, the resulting leak would eventually lead to a ‘loss of coolant accident’ and reactor core uncovery.  With nowhere for the heat to go, the core would literally melt itself and the metal vessel containing it.  The damage to both the plant and to the nuclear industry would be catastrophic.  Not to mention, if this happened while the men were still inside, the water coming out of the seal package would instantaneously flash to steam and they would be burned to death—immediately. 

The perp apparently hadn’t expected anyone to find him in here, because he hadn’t tried to hide the explosive device he’d planted on the seal package.  The Old Man saw it sitting there, in plain sight. 

It was a small cylindrical device about the size of a bottle of wine cut in half.  The top had what looked like a piece of copper covering it.  He assumed this contained C-4 military grade explosive or something similar.  He could see a PETN detonator attached to it, with wires leading off to some kind of detonation device.  By the contours of the thing, it looked like a shaped charge.  The amount of C-4 was probably less than a brick—maybe 1.25 pounds.  If simply strapped onto the side of the seal, the force when detonated would blow out, away from the target area.  But if the C-4 was placed in a shaped charge, when detonated the heat and pressure would cause the inverted cone at the bottom of the small canister to melt and push outward, focusing the force of the explosion in one small area and yielding catastrophic results. 

Because of the constant vibration on the pump and seal assembly, the Old Man assumed there was no tamper device on the explosive.  Jansen, or his man, wouldn’t want it to go off until it was time.  With so much concrete and steel in containment, no radio transmitter would be able to set it off.  That meant a timer.  He couldn’t see any det cord or other short-term fuse, but as he approached the bomb, he saw a digital timer counting down.  It was set to go off at 0700, still a couple of hours away. 

The Old Man recognized this as marginally good news.  Because the bomb had a timer, he knew how much time he had to get it out of there and disarmed.  But he didn’t want to waste any time.  This was a highly dangerous place.  The heat and vibration were intense and perhaps more than the bomb-maker had anticipated.  In addition, the radiation field might cause the timer to malfunction and detonate earlier than expected.  He doubted that the device was specially made for this application or shielded against the radiation.  Whoever had made it was probably not a nuclear physicist.  By the looks of it, the bomb-maker knew something about bombs but probably not about the effects of radiation on timers.  All in all, the Old Man had a number of worries.  Not the least of which was that he and Hector didn’t know the status of the terrorist.  He could come back their way if he was still alive.

The Old Man moved in as close as he dared and looked at the device.  The heat being given off this close to the pump was overwhelming.  He couldn’t stay there for long.  He had no protective gear on, no gloves or eye protection.  He saw that the device was tie-wrapped to a nearby stanchion, held in place against the outside of the seal package.  It would be easy enough to cut the nylon tie wrap and remove the device.  But how stupid was it to use a plastic tie wrap!  The damn thing could melt and the bomb would fall to the floor.  Maybe it was meant to detonate sooner rather than later.  It didn’t really matter.  It needed to be removed.  It was then he realized he didn’t have a knife.  Shit!  He stepped back from the device and moved over to Hector.

“Hector!” he shouted.  “Do you have a knife?” 

“What?”

“Knife!  I need a knife!” he shouted again. 

Without looking down, Hector removed his left hand from his weapon, reached down to his pants and pulled out a small pocket knife with what looked like a three-inch blade.  He handed it to the Old Man and put his hand back to his rifle, still watching the back entrance for the perp.

The Old Man took the knife and moved quickly back to the seal package.  Sweat was literally pouring off his forehead and into his eyes, stinging them.  His shirt was soaked and sticking to his body.  Even his hands were sweating, and he needed to be careful not to let the knife slip. 

When he got back to the device, he glanced down at the timer again and froze as a sudden chill raced through his body.  It wasn’t counting down anymore!  It read gibberish, as if it’s brain was scrambled from the heat.  He didn’t know if it was going to go off in a minute or an hour.  He needed to get it out of there now!  Being careful seemed irrelevant now.  He opened the knife, cradled the device in one hand, and cut the tie wrap holding it in place.  It didn’t come free.  Something else must be securing it.  He needed to back away for a moment so the skin on his face didn’t burn, but he could only go so far because he was holding onto the device with one hand.  With his free hand he wiped the sweat around his face, providing some relief.  He took a deep breath and moved back in, tilting his head so he could see around it he saw a second tie wrap hidden behind the C-4 itself.  He quickly cut that one, too, and the device came loose in his hand.  He immediately pulled away from the pump, his skin already red and showing the signs of first degree burns. 

He looked at the timer display again.  It appeared to be changing but still reading gibberish.  He hoped that meant it was still counting and that only the display itself was malfunctioning, but knew that he couldn’t count on that.

Holding the device as carefully as he could, he shouted at Hector to get his attention.  Hector looked over at the device the Old Man was carrying, gave the barest of nods, and motioned to him to follow as he led the way back out of the labyrinth to the stairwell, and out of this man-made hellhole. 

Still unsure who they might find on their way back, the two moved up the stairs with Hector taking the lead.  As they approached the last flight of stairs before the top landing, Hector paused. 

“What are we stopping for?  We’ve got to get this out of here!” the Old Man shouted at him. 

Hector gave him a look that conveyed he didn’t need to be told the flapping obvious!  He moved up the last set of stairs to the main floor, when something caught his eye over toward the airlock.  He turned and saw Hays and Henderson standing there.  From their relaxed posture he assumed the shots they’d heard were two slugs lodged in the perp’s chest, or perhaps his head.  Right now all he knew was that they needed to get the bomb out of containment. 

As it turned out, Hays had encountered the perp trying to flee up the back stairwell and shot him twice.  The guy fell backward down the stairs and came to rest with his neck in an unnatural position, his eyes looking out with a dead stare.  Hays opted to leave him there for the time being and get out of containment.  The radiation wasn’t going to do any further damage to the terrorist.

The four of them exited containment the same way they’d come in, one door at a time, with the Old Man carefully carrying the explosive device. 

Outside the airlock, Hays called Pak to take over the bomb.  Pak was an expert in ordnance, so the job of disarming the device fell to him.  He looked at it before he took it from the Old Man.  He wanted to make sure there were no hidden booby traps that would be triggered for whatever reason. Seeing none, he reached out and gently took the bomb.

“What’s with the timer?” Pak asked.  “Was it doing this the whole time?”

“It was reading numbers when I got there.  It looked like it was set to detonate at 0700.  But then this . . . ” the Old Man pointed to the constantly changing gibberish. 

Without looking up, Pak said to Hays, “Get the boys out of here.  Get them out now!”

Hays looked at Hector, who said, “This way!”

“Wait!” shouted the Old Man.  Looking at Hays, he asked, “Can we assume he only brought one device with him?  What if he had more?  Could he carry that much?”

Hays furrowed his brow.  “It’s possible he could have taken two in, but doubtful that he could have carried more.  They’re too big and bulky.  Besides, he wasn’t in there that long.”  Then almost as an afterthought, he said,  “Did any of you see a backpack?”

They each looked at one another and shook their heads. 

Hays said, “He would’ve had to carry them in there in something.  If you guys didn’t see a backpack where you were, that tells me there’s probably a second device and the guy left the backpack at the other location.  Two separate targets. 

“I’ve got to go back in,” the Old Man said.

“You can’t,” Pak said.  “This thing is unstable and may go off at any time.  If there’s another one in there it’s probably in a similar or worse condition.  If you go back in, you may not get back out.  I’ll go!”

“You don’t know where you’re going or what you’re looking for.  I can move fast now because we know the bad guy is down.  I need to be the one, and we’re wasting time discussing it!  Hector, get everyone out of here.”

Without waiting for anyone to respond, argue, or even agree, the Old Man ran back and disappeared inside the emergency airlock. 

CHAPTER 62

 

Everyone except Pak and Hays took off to head elsewhere in the plant, putting distance and heavy machinery between them and the one bomb they knew of. 

Pak set the bomb down carefully and gave Hays a brief, questioning look, as if asking him why he stayed.

Hays said with a grim smile, “I thought you might need some help.  What’s the plan?”

Pak was studying the device.  “I don’t want to try to disarm this thing right here.  It looks pretty unstable.  Touching something even with this low-tech timer might set it off.  Best thing to do is find a spot where it can’t do much damage and let it blow itself to smithereens.”

“On the way in here, I noticed a door at the bottom of the steps.  Some kind of room, down below, a level or two.  It looked out of the way.”

Pak didn’t say anything.  He was focused on watching the bomb, trying to figure out what to do, and more importantly, how long he had to do it.  He finally picked it up and said, “Lead the way.”

The two of them moved quickly back the way they’d come, down the stairs to the ground level with the main transformer bank, found the door unlocked and went inside.  It was a small room with what looked like an old boiler in it.  It wasn’t running and didn’t look like it had in quite some time.  Hays quickly checked out the room, going behind the boiler.  Nothing in there looked currently operational or highly technical. 

“Bring it over here,” Hays said from behind the boiler. “There’s nothing much back here but a concrete wall, and I suspect it’s pretty thick.”

Pak moved over to him and set the bomb down gently in the corner. 

“Okay.  I suggest you stand on the other side of that boiler . . . just in case.”

Hays did as he was told this time.  “Okay.  I’m clear.”

He waited there in a moment of absolute silence.  The room was cold and there was no running equipment or machinery to add any ambient noise.  He couldn’t see Pak but knew better than to ask him what he was doing.  He’d know in a minute, one way or another.

Just then, Pak walked around from behind the boiler.

“Got it!” he said, holding the detonator.  “It’s not likely to go off now, but I suggest we leave it where it is and clean it up later.”

Hays just breathed out.  “I thought you said we were going to explode it?  You took a mighty big chance, wouldn’t you say?”

“I made a call, that’s all.”

Hays didn’t know if he was pissed or pleased.  “Good work.  Let’s see if we can’t help out the Old Man.”

“Copy that.”

They left the boiler room and headed back up the stairs to the emergency airlock.

CHAPTER 63

 

I knew I had one chance to find Jansen and put this to bed before all hell broke loose.  If I didn’t get to him soon, it’d get extremely messy.  Based on what the SAS guys told me, Jansen was still on site and probably inside the administration building.  He hadn’t accessed any protected area doors, so they knew he wasn’t in the plant.  The admin building was a six-story building with lots of places to hide.  But I didn’t think he was trying to hide.  He had a secondary command post somewhere.  And he didn’t know I was there. 

I thought about it a minute.  Where would I go?  He came into the plant because his plan was falling apart.  He still needed this to succeed so he could get paid.  He needed a place of relative security and one that was easy to get to.  He’d also want a place his team could assemble.  His people were dressed as security officers and had key cards that allowed them to go where they wanted.  Where was the one place he could do all this with relative impunity? 

The logical place to go, and perhaps specifically because Rob was dirty, was likely to be Rob’s office.  It only made sense.  Besides that, nobody’d think to check Rob’s office for terrorists. 

I thought back to where Rob’s office was.  I’d met with him and others in there after the exercise.  Bottom floor of the admin building, in the corner.  One way in, secure location at the end of a hall.  That’s where I’d find Jansen.  That’s where I’d find his team.  So that’s where I needed to be. 

I left the control room by the front door.  No time to waste now.  I opted to go down several flights of stairs, rather than the elevator, to the ground level and walk over to the admin building through the turbine building.  I was in it now, and being on the move made me feel better.  My Glock was in my hand. 

As I moved through the building, I realized I still didn’t know Jansen’s exit strategy.  It’d be good to know what it is so I didn’t overlook something.  I had to assume that both he and his team had plans on how to get out.  And with the FBI coming, they’d have a tough time doing that unless . . . of course!  The FBI will want to evacuate the site.  That was their plan from the beginning.  Balls’ey move.  It would take a lot of nerve for Jansen to pull it off.  The FBI would tell everyone to leave the site.  They would insist on it.  Jansen and his team would simply walk out with everyone else.  Elegant in it’s simplicity, really.  But that meant they’d have to be ready to leave when the FBI agents moved in.  Rob would have that information and surely would have already provided it to Jansen.  I looked at my watch.  It was 4:10 a.m.  The FBI would be here by 6 a.m.  I had to get moving. 

Now that I’d figured out what his plan was—or at least what I thought his plan was—I could concentrate on where I was going and what I was going to do when I got there.  I didn’t have everything worked out yet, but this had to end. 

I moved slowly and carefully across the ground floor of the turbine building, in-between and around its massive components, pipes, and earthquakes supports.  I knew Jansen’s team was still here somewhere.  No doubt their plans had changed since I’d altered the playing field and took the initiative.  Best way to throw a wrench into the other team’s plans. 

At the end of the turbine building, I stood in an electrical distribution center, preparing to make the short walk outside to the admin building.  The plant was still in lockdown following the security event.  I hadn’t heard any other PA announcements saying anything to the contrary.  I assumed Jansen’s team would be moving out of the power block and back into the admin building as well, in preparation for departing the site, so I had to be careful not to let any security staff see me on my way.  I might have a hard time discerning the good guys from the bad guys.  Either one would probably want to shoot me on sight.  I decided I needed some intel before I headed over there. 

There were phones everywhere in a nuclear power plant, so I picked up the nearest one and dialed the number 3388 that Dave gave me for his private line.

“Dave Street,” he answered. 

“Dave, this is Nick.  How are things up there?”

“Scary, I have to admit.  I’m trying to hold things together up here.  The units are still on line, but it’s not easy.  I’m not sure what all’s going on.  There was an explosion at the intake.  And we’ve had a couple of alarms on the Unit 1 containment airlock.  We’re not prepared for this kind of thing.  I’m still a bit shaky myself.”

“You’re doing a good job,” I assured him.  “Really.  You’ve had some issues to deal with, no doubt about that, but you did well.  Hell, you got us out of the water box,” I reminded him.

“That reminds me . . . how in blazes did you get into the water box in the first place?”

“I’d like to tell you but I’m in kind of a rush right now.” 

“What do you need?”

“I need to know if there’s a back door to Rob’s office.”

“Let me think a minute,” Dave replied, “Yeah, I’m pretty sure there is, but if I remember right, it’s usually locked.  Lots of safeguards information down there, and I’m sure Rob doesn’t want anyone just waltzing in the back door and making off with it.”

“Any way in through that door?”

“None that I know of.  Besides being locked from the inside, it’s probably alarmed.  I don’t know for sure.  I don’t go down there very often.”

“Okay.  Thanks.”  Not what I wanted to hear.  But I can’t just walk in the front door.  I didn’t even know if Jansen was in there for sure—I only assumed he was. 

“One last thing.  How’s our NRC resident holding up?”  I hoped my transparent inquiry about Marti wasn’t too obvious.

“Marti?  She’s fine.  She’s a trooper. She sure brightens up when your name is mentioned.  And there are a lot of people talking about you up here.”

“Let’s keep all that on the down low, can we?  Publicity is not my strong suit, you know what I mean?”

“Well, you may have a problem with that.”

I was getting ready to hang up, when something hit me. “Did you say you got ‘multiple’ door alarms on containment?  How many exactly?”

“We got one earlier when I assume the terrorist went in.  Then we got two more when your team went in and came back out.  Hector called to tell me they got the guy and the Old Man brought a bomb out with him.  But then we got one more alarm, as if someone went back in.  Truth be told, we’re not sure about that one.  But again, we’re standing fast and not moving about, otherwise I’d send someone to check it out.”  

With a growing tightness in my throat, I asked, “Does anyone know where the Old Man is right now?  Did he come out with Hector?”

“I don’t really know.  I assume . . . wait one . . .”

Nick heard some activity in the background over the phone.  People were talking in excited tones, and Dave was asking questions.  Nick didn’t like what he’s hearing.

Dave came back on line.  “I have to go.  I don’t know what happened, but we just got a pressure spike in the Unit 1 containment.”

“Pressure spike?  As in a loss of coolant accident?”

“I don’t think so.  We’d be seeing that on a variety of other instrumentation.  The reactor is still on line.  This is containment pressure only.  It was a blip on pressure, but we got it on all four channels of our instrumentation.  It looks real, not an instrument problem.  Something isn’t right here.” 

Nick could hear Dave talking as if to one of the control room watch-standers, “George, what’s that protection set bi-stable that just came in?”  Then, back to me, he said, “I gotta go” and hung up.  There was a hint of panic in his voice. 

Sonofabitch!  A separate, unexpected door alarm, the Old Man unaccounted for, and now a pressure spike in containment.  If it weren’t from a loss of coolant accident, then what would have caused it? What could cause a pressure wave in containment?  A bomb exploding?  Shit!  Two bombs in containment!  They’d brought one out, the second one detonated in containment?  But what kind of damage did it do?  And where was the Old Man?

CHAPTER 64

 

As I was going over all this in my head, the door to the room I was standing in opened and an armed responder walked in.  I ducked behind a breaker cubicle before the guy noticed me.  He walked into the room and headed across it, as if to leave the room by a door near where I was standing.  He seemed nervous or pre-occupied and walked quickly as if he was going somewhere or meeting someone.  Given what was going on, maybe that wasn’t all that unusual.  He had a knapsack slung over one shoulder, which struck me as a bit odd for a mobile security officer on duty, especially under these conditions.  Had to be one of Jansen’s men.  This could be the break I needed.  I was worried about what was going on in containment but there was nothing I could do about that right now.  My mission was in front of me.  

The man moved quickly through the door, glancing nervously from side to side.  Careful not to be noticed, I moved over to the door after it closed behind him and cracked it open so I could watch where he was going.  Sure enough, he headed directly to the end of the admin building, not to the main door where everyone else went in and out.  I saw him stop, look around, then disappear inside the building.  That must be the back door to Rob’s office that Dave told me about.

Pushing open the door, I walked quickly out of the turbine building and followed the man’s route, hoping not to draw attention to myself.  It was dark and I was counting on the fact that the security force was busy at the intake or where my guys came through the fence.  As I rounded the corner of the admin building, I saw the door the other man must have gone through. It seemed reasonable that someone unlocked it so others could get in, especially if Jansen was in there. 

I stood by the door and listened for sounds on the other side, but couldn’t hear through the heavy metal door.  As carefully as I could, I tried the doorknob and found it unlocked.  I breathed out, opened it, and moved quickly inside. I found myself in a short hallway with offices to one side, a fax machine in the hallway, and a shredder with shards of paper on top of the machine and on the floor around it. 

Getting my bearings, I looked at the first office door on my left and recognized it as Rob’s, though I’d come in last time from the opposite direction.  The door was closed, but as I recall, on the other side was the secretary’s office, which in turn opened to Rob’s office.  Fortunately for me I’d been in there before, or the way the office was setup would’ve caused me confusion.  This time, I heard voices on the other side, though I couldn’t make out what was being said.

Readying myself, I opened the first door, gun at the ready, found the secretary’s office deserted, and saw the next door into Rob’s office already open.  The men who were talking immediately went quiet.  It was literally no more than two steps to his office and I moved into it quickly and saw two armed responders jump up and go for their weapons as soon as they saw me.  There were knapsacks on the floor near their chairs, and one of them was the guy I just followed over there. The way they were going for their weapons left no doubt in my mind that they intended to use them on me if they got a chance.  I triple tapped the first guy, and then put two, center mass, in the next guy.  Both dropped to the floor dead.  I looked around the small office.  Jansen wasn’t there! 

Just then, I heard a noise a short distance away, outside the office I was standing in.  All my senses were heightened now.  My mind and my consciousness turned first toward the direction of the sound.  I could literally feel the bullet coming my way at subsonic speed.  Maybe it was the shock wave that preceded the bullet.  My world and everything in it slowed down. My mind was processing this new information at an incredible rate, but much faster than my body could respond.  My instincts were telling me to drop, which I immediately started to do.  But it wasn’t nearly soon enough.  The bullet struck me in the fleshy part of my right shoulder, knocking me backward, causing me to drop my weapon.  I stumbled and fell to my knees and saw a man I didn’t know standing there, looking down at me, with a pistol pointing at my face. 

“Well, Sergeant First Class Connor.  How the hell did you get in here?” Stone asked.  He kept his weapon on me as he moved closer.  He assumed an air of complete confidence, assuming that he had the upper hand. 

For the moment, he might have been right.  I was down, had a hole in my shoulder, had no weapon in my hand, and this guy had a gun on me.  I needed to engage him and get him talking, which would slow him down and give me the minute that I needed to rest and improvise a plan. 

I looked up at him.  He was dressed in street clothes, not in the black security uniform.  “I don’t know who you are, but you have no chance now,” I said, with a searing pain in my shoulder.  “You know that, right?” 

Stone let out a short laugh.  “From my perspective, seems like I’m on top and you aren’t.”

He stepped over the two dead men on the floor, moved around so his back was to the window and the door remained in his field of view.  He glanced down at the members of his team.  “I should have been the one to take you out at The Tavern.”

“Those two assholes friends of yours?” I asked sarcastically. “They aren’t going to be doing much but limping the rest of their lives.”

“Keep talking, prick.  I’ll just enjoy this all the more.”

I wasn’t nearly as drained as this guy thought.  Certainly not as drained as I wanted him to think I was.  My shoulder hurt like hell, but the wound was far from life threatening.  He was close now and I worked my way up to my knees, leaning over, pretending to be very weak, trying to get him to close the distance between us. 

“So what’s your plan to get out of here?” I asked.  “The FBI is probably massing in the parking lot you know.”

Stone just smiled.  “The FBI is our ticket out of here.  You didn’t think we’d come in here without a way out, did you? 

“I don’t know.  I just assumed you were stupid.”

The smile vanished from Stone’s face. 

“Speaking of stupid, where’s your boss, Jansen?  I assume he is your boss, right?  Waxman wouldn’t let someone as dumb as you run a job like this.”

Stone started to hyperventilate, his pride hurt and his anger building.  I could see his eyes dart rapidly side-to-side, as if contemplating his next move.  He stepped closer to me as if the bullet he intended for me would be more forceful if delivered up close when he pulled the trigger.  At least it would feel better to him. 

“I’m here to make sure that asshole Jansen did what he was hired to do. Though by the looks of things, I’m not so sure he did.  He wasn’t in the parking lot where he was supposed to be.  Now, I come in here and find my boys here dead, and you’re not.  That’s something I intend to remedy right now.” 

I slowed my breathing and relaxed my muscles.  As Stone extended his arm, pointing the gun at my head, I thrust my left arm straight up, just underneath Stone’s arm that was holding the gun.  I quickly rose to my feet, turning my body as I did so, which deflected Stone’s aim as he pulled the trigger.  The bullet sailed past me harmlessly.  Again with my left hand, I grabbed Stone’s wrist and pulled him forward and off balance, bringing my right knee up into Stone’s groin with as much force as I could. 

Stone let out an agonizing cry as a wave of pain coursed through his stomach area, causing him to drop his gun and fall to one knee. An attack to the groin is almost always immediately disabling, but he was a big guy and I knew it’d take more than that to stop him.  He struggled back to his feet, and as he did so, his left arm backhanded me to the side of the face, knocking me down and once again making Stone think he had the upper hand.  He was furious now, but instead of being smart and looking for a weapon, he looked like he wanted to finish me off by hand, which he no doubt thought he was capable of doing. 

He didn’t see me cock my left leg back, until I thrust it out, connecting with his right knee.  There was a sickening crack and Stone howled in pain as he looked down and saw it bend backward. 

I did my best to stand up before anything else could happen.  Stone was now a wounded animal and becoming desperate.  He had the drop on me a minute ago and now he was fighting for his life, with rage giving him an adrenaline surge.  I knew that if Stone got hold of me, I might lose the encounter.  Stone was bigger and stronger, and he didn’t have a bullet hole in his shoulder. 

Where before I had wanted to draw him in, it was now to my benefit to keep some distance between us.  But the room was small and cluttered and there was no safe place for me to get to.  Stone reached into a pocket and pulled out a knife, opening it with a flick of his thumb to reveal a three-inch serrated blade.  I could see Stone readying for a lunge at me, when the glass window shattered.  There was a spurt of blood that erupted from Stone’s upper body as he fell to the floor in a heap, and stopped moving.  A split second later, I heard the report of a sniper rifle off in the distance.

I stood there a minute, looking for his gun, found it and shuffled over to pick it up.  I looked down at Stone and the blood that was pooling around him.  I waited a few seconds to see if there were any other threats I needed to address.  Not seeing any of the three men moving, I relaxed a bit.

My rest was short lived when I heard someone walking into the office behind me.  I turned and, in the same motion, brought my gun up to bear on what I perceived was a new threat.  Unfortunately, I was getting weak now and I didn’t have a lot left.  I recognized the man standing in front of me.  Jansen was holding a gun and pointed it directly at me as he moved carefully into the room.  He looked down at Stone and the other men, none of which were moving.  When he saw Stone, he got a surprised look on his face, as if not expecting to see Stone there.  Jansen looked up, stepped over Stone, and approached me. 

“How the hell did you get in here?” he asked me, incredulous. 

Just then four armed security responders rushed the office with rifles brought to bear on Jansen and me.  My previous gunshots must have drawn their attention.  These guys looked serious and prepared to do harm to anyone they didn’t know—and they didn’t know me.  The thought crossed my mind that they may be Jansen’s men, in which case I was screwed.

“Put down your weapon!  Do it now!” one of them commanded me, his rifle aimed at my chest. 

I slowed my breathing and prepared to attack the nearest guy when Hector came running up.  When he saw me, he shouted, “Hold your fire!  Hold your fire!  He’s a friendly.  Don’t shoot!  Don’t shoot!”

The security personnel froze in their positions but didn’t appear to be convinced and did not drop their weapons.  To my relief it appeared they were the good guys, though they still had weapons on me.  I lowered my arm to my side and smiled at Hector. 

“Hi, Hector.  About time you got here.”

Jansen was just standing there, not moving, still holding his weapon.  He looked at me and then at Hector.  He was clearly outnumbered but looked threatening nonetheless.  He was very big and intimidating to Hector and the guys on Hector’s staff, despite the fact that Hector’s men had semi-automatic weapons.  Hector recognized Jansen from his picture as the guy they were looking for. 

Keeping one eye on Jansen, Hector circled around and sidled up to me, surveying the carnage all around me.  He just shook his head.  “Man, you’re making a hell of a mess out of my power plant.  There’re dead guys all over the place.  There’s gonna be hell to pay for this.  I hope you’re prepared to explain all this, ‘cause I can’t.”

He looked back at Jansen, and said, “You’d better drop that weapon or I’ll blow you to hell and gone!”

Just then, there was a loud scream from behind me.  We all turned and saw Stone pushing himself up off the floor.  He looked up at me with murderous fury in his eyes.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw Jansen bringing his weapon up and I sensed that everyone was looking at Stone and nobody saw that Jansen was preparing to shoot.  I heard two quick shots and felt the pressure wave as the bullets passed me, and watched as Stone fell to the floor again, truly dead this time.

The security responders whirled around, on alert, weapons hot.  “Drop the fucking weapon!  Do it NOW!” screamed one of them.  Jansen immediately dropped his 9mm Sig Sauer to the floor and raised his hands over his head, surrendering.  Hector’s men were agitated, twitchy, and unclear if they should shoot me, or Jansen, or both of us.  They looked back and forth at us apprehensively, weapons aimed at our faces.  I knew I needed to get everyone to back down a bit. 

“Calm down fellas,” I told them, knowing that they needed someone to tell them what to do, and time to process all of this.  I raised my left hand and gingerly set my weapon down on the desk next to me to help defuse the situation.  “Hector?” I said, trying to get Hector to take charge of his men. 

Hector broke out of his stunned silence.  “Everyone stay where you are!  Don’t move and don’t shoot anyone!” Hector commanded.  He was still trying to figure out what just happened himself.

I moved slowly over to Jansen, put one hand on his shoulder and looked him in the eyes.  We each reached out a hand and gripped one another tightly.  Jansen and I exchanged a look. 

Then Jansen broke out into a grin and said, “Hey, boss. Good to see you in one piece.”

I smiled back at him.  “Back at ya!” 

Then to Hector, who was standing there with his mouth open, I said, “Hector, I’d like you to meet Eric Jansen . . . a member of NeXus.”

CHAPTER 65

 

The Old Man opened the airlock to containment and stepped inside for the second time that night.  He knew there were four reactor coolant pumps and that the terrorist had brought two bombs in with him.  Where would he put them?  He put one on the 1-2 reactor coolant pump seal package.  Found and removed.  It was reasonable to assume the second bomb would also be placed on a seal package, but which one?  He didn’t have a lot of time to search for it.  Then it occurred to him that before he died, the terrorist tried to escape up the back stairwell.  It might be reasonable to assume that he knew about that stairwell because he’d been down it already.  It was near the 1-4 reactor coolant pump room.  Opposite sides of containment.  It made sense. 

He headed immediately over to the back stairwell and ran all the way down to the 91-foot elevation to the 1-4 reactor coolant pump room.  He was breathing hard.  The heat was incredible, and his aerobic conditioning was good, but only for a man of his age.  He ran inside, looked at the pump seal package, and saw a device strapped to the side of it.  The bomb looked just like the other one.  He looked at the timer immediately, hoping he wouldn’t see the same gibberish he saw on the other bomb, but to his horror, that was exactly what he saw.  As he was looking at it, the timer display went normal and showed six minutes!  Then it changed back to gibberish.  He had only six minutes until it detonated!

He still had Hector’s knife, got it out and worked feverishly to cut the device loose.  He had to work fast.  The timer flashed back to normal again and shows five minutes, then gibberish again.  Shit!  He’d never get it out of containment in time.  The heat was starting to affect him now.  His skin had reddened, his fingers felt burned, and he could smell the acrid stench of burned hair.  His breathing was labored and he felt faint.  No matter, he had to get this done. 

He finally got the device cut loose. 

Gibberish – four minutes – gibberish.

He knew the amount of C-4, as a shaped charge, could do considerable damage to what it was attached to, but not if it were out in the open.  The containment structure was seven feet thick at the base, so there was no way this bomb would hurt containment itself.  He just needed to get it away from sensitive equipment.  And then he needed to get away from it.

Gibberish – three minutes – gibberish.

He took the bomb and ran back out of the labyrinth, looking around for a place to put it.  [_No time!  No time! _] The best he could come up with was to put it down on the floor with its back to the concrete wall of the bio-shield, aiming at the outside containment wall 10 feet away.  The explosion would be contained in a localized area of mostly concrete and steel, with little in the way of equipment.  It was the best he could do. 

Gibberish – two minutes – gibberish.

He could run upstairs, but then there’d be nothing between him and the bomb but distance.  He needed shielding, too.  Besides, he was worn out and he knew he wouldn’t get too far running upstairs.  All he could do was to put concrete between him and the bomb, and then pray.  He ducked back inside the labyrinth, putting several feet of concrete between him and the bomb. 

Gibberish – one minute – gibberish.

The Old Man sat down on the floor with his back to the wall, and pulled his knees up to his chest, not knowing why, other than it felt like a good defensive posture.  He put his hands over his ears and tried to put his head between his knees as if on an airplane and preparing himself for a crash landing.

Gibberish – twenty seconds – Gibberish.

 

  • * * * *

 

Dave was talking with Nick on the phone when the control room recorded a momentary pressure spike in containment.  Normally reading less than one pound of pressure, it spiked to just below the reactor trip set point of three psig.  Dave didn’t know it yet, but a bomb had just exploded in the Unit 1 containment of The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant.

CHAPTER 66

 

The Headlands, remote as it was, had a small medical facility on site.  It wasn’t staffed at that time of day so Hector called Dave and asked for one of the paramedics he had on the fire brigade to get down there ASAP to take a look at Eric and me.

While we were all waiting, I asked for an update.  Hector told me that Unit 1 was still at 50 percent power.  Members of my team had accompanied Hector’s handpicked men to the locations Jerry had identified from SAS and found four devices; two on emergency diesel generators, one in a high radiation area near a highly contaminated demineralizer—which they needed the key for—and one near a Safety Injection pump.  Had all these devices gone off as intended, including the ones in containment, the plant would have sustained serious, if not unrecoverable damage.  And the political fallout would surely have prevented it from ever being repaired and restarted.  It would have been an engineering and political disaster of unimaginable proportions. 

In the process of finding the bombs, Hector told me his men had found and killed two of Jansen’s team, wounded a third, and dropped one in containment. That was four of six they knew to be in the plant somewhere.  He didn’t know where the other two were or where Jansen was until they found me standing over the remaining terrorists in Rob’s office. That accounted for everyone they knew about. 

He did not, however, know about Stone.  Seems that he, like Jansen, had a key card made for him by Rob.  He came into the plant just a few hours after shift change.  Hector was appalled at how easily all this had been accomplished.  He was sure the plant security programs would be scrutinized with a fine-tooth comb in the very near future—perhaps with the help of NeXus

When he finished briefing me on the terrorist situation, Hector just looked at me and sighed.  “What a mess.  We’ve got dead guys all over the place.  And if I can believe you, we’ve got several more in the hills behind us.  About the only good news is that none of the dead guys are mine.  There’s a hole in my fence—that you made—there’s debris at the intake from some kind of small boat that I suspect you blew up, and we’ve violated several dozen laws concerning security at a nuclear power plant.  Not the least of which is you don’t have a badge or a key card,” and he held out his hand for Jerry’s key card, which I promptly returned to him.

He continued.  “I’ve got the federal government and a cast of thousands camped on my doorstep ready to come in here and take over.  I’m really looking forward to that,” he said with considerable sarcasm.  “You’re in a heap of trouble, son.”

“What about Rob?” Eric asked.

“Got his ass in custody.  He’s crying like a little girl. Seems he doesn’t really have the stomach for this kind of thing.”

Hector was looking at me with concern for my injuries, no doubt. 

“When you’re feeling better, but before you leave my sight, you will explain how you and that partner of yours got inside my power plant without my knowing about it.”

He paused for a moment, and then asked with something between awe and confusion.  “And then you can explain who the hell Eric Jansen is.”  

I wasn’t going anywhere for a while, waiting for medical attention.  “What I’m about to tell you can’t go any further.  You understand?”

Hector slowly nodded his head. 

“We’ve been involved for some time now tracking a group of Chinese businessmen, intent on destabilizing the US domestic nuclear industry.”

“Why would they want to do that?”

“They’re trying to get into nuclear power generation in a big way, and in a big hurry.  They figured if they could cause the US industry to second-guess themselves, they could pick up parts on the cheap.  This is worth billions of dollars to them.”

“So they were behind all this?”

“It appears that way, yes.”

“And they’d do this by blowing up The Headlands?

“Yup.  We didn’t know exactly how they planned to do it and needed to catch them in the act.  So we leaked information about Eric to Waxman Industries.  Made him look like a malcontent.  Figured he’d make a good recruit for them.”  I looked at Eric, smiled and said, “He does looks like an unsavory character, doesn’t he?” 

“Hey, I resent that!” Eric said with an even bigger grin.

“Anyway, we suspected that there’d be an insider but didn’t know who to trust.  So we had to play this pretty close to the vest.”

“You were taking a pretty big chance with those bombs, weren’t you?”

Eric said, “Not really.  At least, not initially.  I provided the detonators for the bombs and made sure they wouldn’t work.  But Stone was a wild card.  He was bent out of shape because they didn’t put him in charge of this mission.  He was suspicious of me from day one.  I suspected that he’d try something, but didn’t have time to figure out what it was.  I actually just found out that he somehow swapped out the phony detonators with ones that worked.  So the bombs were live.”

I was starting to get tired but wanted information on what else was going on.  “My men?” 

Hector paused for a minute.  “Most of your men are accounted for.  No injuries.”

“Most?”

“I understand that Hays and Pak are missing.  They came out of containment with us but stayed behind to defuse the bomb we brought out.  Just haven’t seen them since.  We’ll find them.  In the meantime, tell me again, just how did you get in here?  What the hell am I going to tell the FBI?  Are you and that other guy ghosts or what?”

“Something like that.  Maybe some . . .”

“. . . other time. . . ,yeah, I know,” Hector said as he finished my sentence with dripping sarcasm.

Two of my men missing.  Not good, but not confirmed lost, just unaccounted for.  I’d been putting off the inevitable—a question I needed answered but was afraid to ask.

“What about the Old Man,” I asked anxiously.  “Is he okay?”

Hector frowned.  He didn’t know quite what to say or how to say it.  “He went back inside containment after we all came out.  We thought there might be a second bomb and he went back in to find it.  Haven’t heard from him since then.  Sorry, man.”

I knew it!  The unexplained containment door alarm.  It all made sense.  Damn it!

Just then, the paramedic arrived and looked around at the crowd that had gathered.  I could see the guy appeared a little shaky, so I looked at him kindly and said, “Hi, my name’s Nick.” 

It was clear by the look on his face that he was intimidated by what was going on and the fact that there was a guy in front of him with a gunshot wound. 

The young paramedic said, “I’m Steve,” as he set his bag down and took off his jacket.

“Not the kind of wound you expect to see at a nuclear power plant, eh Steve?”

“First one for me, that’s for sure,” Steve said, getting things out of his bag.  “Can I ask how it happened?”

“Maybe Hector will tell you some time.  For now, just do your best and patch me up.  I have to leave and go find someone.”

Hector looked at me.  “No you don’t!  You are not going into containment to look for anyone.  I won’t allow it.  I’ll talk to Dave and we’ll get a search-and-rescue team out. But we’ll do this by the book.  Do you understand?”

All business now, Steve was in the process of cutting off my shirt to get a good look at my shoulder.  He looked worried.  “I don’t know if this is bad or not,” he confessed.  “I’ve never treated a gunshot wound before, but it looks like it went all the way through.  You’ve got an exit wound on the backside of your shoulder.  I’ll clean it up and put a dressing on it for you.  You may have lost some blood, though.  You need to have a real doctor check this out as soon as you can.”

“Yeah, he’s heard that before,” said Eric, who was sitting in a corner.  Hector still wasn’t so sure about him.

I looked at Hector.  “I know you have your procedures.  But if it was one of your team, would you leave a man behind, Marine?”

Hector knew he was being played right now, but he also knew what needed to be done.

“All right,” he acquiesced.  I’ll go in myself.”

Eric stood up.  “I’m going with you.” 

Hector looked at him.  Ten minutes ago, he wanted to kill this guy.  Now he was on a search-and-rescue mission with him.  But by the looks of him, he’d be an asset to any team. Hector nodded.

Before they could leave, and as the paramedic worked on me, Prichard walked in.  He looked at me and didn’t say anything.  Then he looked at Eric with the same skepticism Hector had.

“Jeff Prichard, meet Eric Jansen.  He’s a plank owner of NeXus.  Eric, meet the VP of this station.”  

“Eric Jansen, as in the terrorist Jansen who was orchestrating this for the other side?  Jansen, as in the guy who had a member of my staff killed and who tried to have you beat up?  That Jansen?” Prichard asked, dumbfounded.

“For the record, sir, I did not have Brenda killed,” Eric said.  “That wasn’t my doing.  Happened before I could stop it.  Those were Waxman employees who did that.”

The look on Prichard’s face was hard to read.  It was as if he knew something we didn’t know but he still wasn’t sure about all this.  It was coming at him fast.

“As for beating up Nick, here . . . sending two guys after Nick was not a serious threat, I can assure you.  That was just to put the fear of God into the Waxman boys.  I really did want to watch it, though.  Good to meet you, sir,” he said, extending his hand to the VP. 

Prichard took his hand and shook it as he looked at me.

“Remember, things are not always as they seem,” I told him.

“Indeed, they’re not.”

Just then, Hays walked through the door. 

“I found this guy trying to get out of the turbine building.  Seems security wanted to detain him,” Prichard said.

I looked at Hays with a question in my eyes. 

He said, “We defused the first bomb we pulled out, in some kind of deserted boiler room over by the transformers.  It’s still there and needs to be picked up but it’s inert now.  Then we hauled ass back to containment to help the Old Man.  When we went to open the equalizing valve on the door, we could smell the combustion from exploded ordinance.  Must have happened just before we got there.  We were able to get the door open, went in and assumed the Old Man would be down on the bottom level, as before.  That’s where we started our search.  Found him lying on the floor bleeding from his ears, but otherwise mostly okay.  Got him out of there and called the shift manager.  He sent out a couple of guys from the fire brigade who are paramedics.  We didn’t know they had a hospital here!”

I looked at Hays.  “I owe you man.”

“Ain’t no big thing, boss.”

“So where is he now?”

“The paramedics got him somewhere.  They just didn’t want him moving around for a while until they could pump him full of antibiotics and fluids.  He looked pretty dehydrated.  I left Pak with him to make sure they didn’t kill him!”

An hour went by as Steve worked on me.  He patched up the hole in my shoulder, gave me a shot of something or other, and put on a clean dressing.  When he was done, he sat back and looked at me. 

“I couldn’t help but notice you have some significant scars up and down your torso.  What happened to you?” he said as he stood back as if afraid to come near me again. 

Prichard put a hand on the paramedic’s shoulder, and said, “I think the less we ask him, the better off we’ll all be.”

CHAPTER 67

 

Prichard didn’t know quite what to think about Eric, NeXus, the Old Man, and certainly not me, but he knew what he wanted to say to Hector.  He turned to him and shook his hand. 

“Excellent work tonight, Hector.  You did a great job, and under trying circumstances as well.  I’m sure there’ll be a report on all of this, right?” he said with a wink to me. 

Hector just stood there, resolute.  “Yes, sir, though it may take me a little while to figure out what just happened,” he said as he looked at Eric and me, “and who everyone is.  I’m not sure I have all the relevant facts yet . . .”

“Take the time you need.  I’m sure as the new security manager, you’ll have your hands full trying to patch things back together around here.”

Hector just looked at him, dumbfounded.  “Are you serious, sir?”

“You’ve earned it.  From what I hear, you were instrumental in keeping it together tonight.  I’d say take a few days off, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible.  The FBI and sheriff are outside and want to know what happened, though they didn’t exactly put it quite like that.  They want to talk to the man in charge.  That’s you.”  Then he turned to me. “What do you think we should tell them, Nick?”

“Oh, you’ll think of something,” I said.  “Hey, I don’t suppose Marti is around anywhere is she?”

“Matter of fact, she’s been asking about you, too.  Seems you’re a popular kind of guy.  She’s been busy keeping the NRC Commissioners updated, though I understand they’re furious. But I’ve arranged to have her meet us upstairs in my office after we get you cleaned up.  We need to get you out of sight for a while.  I sure as hell don’t know how to explain you to the FBI.”

CHAPTER 68

 

We worked our way up to Prichard’s office as the sun came up over the hills to the east.  A new day was dawning.  The Pacific Ocean was earning its name with placid, gently rolling swells.  Eric was sitting in a chair nursing a bottle of cold water.  I was resting on the couch, with my right arm in a sling, drinking piping hot coffee, when Marti came in.  She rushed over to me and didn’t care who saw what as she plunked down on the couch next to me, hugged me, and kissed me lightly on the cheek.  She didn’t release or let go and I found I enjoyed the soft feel of a woman in my arms again.  It had been a long time. 

“Hey, take it easy on my shoulder, okay?” I told her teasingly.

She released me and then noticed the sling.  Her eyes went wide.  “Oh my god!  What happened?  Are you okay?”

“You should see the other guys!” I said, trying to lighten things up.  “I’m fine.  It’s just a scratch.”

She then looked over at Eric with a good deal of skepticism, and then back to me.

“Marti, meet Eric Jansen.  He’s a part of my team.”

Marti looked at him but refused to let go of me.  If anything, she huddled a little closer.  She’d been through a lot in the last couple of days and right now wasn’t sure of too much, other than her feelings for me.  She didn’t know much about our backgrounds and probably little about the Green Berets, but it looked like that was something she’d like to rectify if possible. 

“Who are you guys?” she said with unabashed wonder.

Just then, the door to Prichard’s office opened and the Old Man walked in with Dave.  I looked up and saw the bandaged arms and red face.  But there was a twinkle in the older man’s eyes and I could tell he was all right.  I breathed a sigh of relief. 

I stood up and went over to him, with Marti hanging on to me like Velcro.  The Old Man moved over to me, too, but stopped when he saw Marti attached to me, and smiled, causing Marti’s cheeks to turn a bright red.

The Old Man looked her in the eyes.  “I’ll give him back to you in a minute, but do you mind if I borrow Nick for a moment?” 

Marti returned his gaze, looked down at his wrapped arms, and instinctively went over to give him a hug, too.  She reached out to him gently and put her arms around him, trying not to hurt him.  She didn’t know this man a couple of days ago but felt a bond with him now, too. 

As she broke her embrace, she looked back up at the Old Man’s face and eyes and shuddered, pushing him back a couple of inches and stood there.  There was that familiarity again.  Then she looked at me with a question in her eyes.  All I could do was smile at her.

The Old Man put an arm around Marti, looked down at her, then back at me and said, “Not bad, son.”

I looked back at him and said, “Not bad yourself, Dad—for an old man.”

CHAPTER 69

 

Prichard stood up and went over to greet my dad.  “Mr. Connor, good to see you again.  It’s been a long time.  I didn’t know you were associated with this disreputable rabble!”

“I’m actually retired.  I just consult from time to time,” he said with a glance at me.

Prichard smiled.  “Looks like you do considerably more than that to me.  We owe you a debt of gratitude sir.”

Then he moved over to Dave and shook his hand.  “Good job last night, Dave!  You did an excellent job holding things together in the control room.  I appreciate everything you did. I really do.  I know you’re tired and have, well, some things on your mind.  We’ll try to get you out of here just as soon as we can.”

Dave looked drained and said, “Thank you, sir.”  He turned to me and extended his hand.  I took it and gripped it firmly.  Dave’s eyes teared up, but he didn’t say a word.  He didn’t need to.  I understood all too well.  Just then, my phone rang. 

“Connor,” I answered. 

“Boy, what a cluster,” Pete said.  “I can’t get within a mile of The Headlands.  All the roads are closed and there are more law enforcement around here than you can shake a stick at.  I assume you took care of business out there for us?”

“I did my part, but we had a lot of help,” I said, glancing around the room. 

In a more serious tone, Pete asked, “Did everyone make it okay?” 

“Eric and the boys are fine.  By the way, did you find anything out about Waxman Industries?  Do we have them this time?”

Prichard was now looking at me—hard.  He couldn’t hear the whole conversation, but just listening to me probably made him wonder if my being there was really his idea in the first place.  He was a smart man and I was sure he’d figure it out sooner or later.  Whatever he couldn’t figure out, I knew the National Security Agency would fill him in on—at some point in time.

“Matter of fact, we do,” Pete said.  “We’ve got more on Waxman than I’m sure the FBI and CIA want us to have.  But right now, I’ll bet we’re the flavor of the month, so they can’t do jack about it.”

“Have you figured out how they did it yet?  It’s time to end this,” I said  “They’ve stepped way over the line.  Brenda Williams’ death is simply unacceptable.”

“The real power is upstairs with Mr. Waxman himself.  These guys are good.  We’ve got the intel and paper trail to shut them down permanently this time,” Pete said.  “I hacked their system the way the Chinese have been doing to us, for years now.  I had to go through a server in Hong Kong—too many firewalls over here.  But over there, it’s a wide-open infrastructure.  I opened a portal in Suriname of all places, and fed some breadcrumbs to the FBI through the NSA.  There’s now a paper trail all the way back to Mr. Waxman himself, that even they should be able to follow.  He’s on record as having met with Mr. Chiu and arranging this whole debacle.”

“Good work, Pete.  What do you recommend?”

“Mr. Waxman has a private plane waiting for him at the executive terminal at Hartsfield-Jackson airport.  He’s on a plane for a high-level meeting in D.C. this afternoon with some government officials at the Department of Commerce and Trade.  He thinks he’s negotiating some trade agreements with China.  We’ve arranged to leak some incriminating information through the Washington Post, just to get the ball rolling.” 

“Well done,” I said.  “Sounds like this thing is about wrapped up.  You’ll have to give me a complete brief when you get a chance.”

“Oh, you can be sure of that,” Pete replied.  “We’ve been summoned to Washington.  There are some folks there who want to talk to us.”

“Oh, and who might they be?” I asked with mock surprise.  “Are they the ones at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue again?”

“They’re the ones.”

“Say, I got a guy here who’d love to talk with his family.  I don’t suppose you can help out with that, can you?”

“Funny you should ask.  They’re right here.  Wait one . . .”

With that, I handed my phone to Dave.  I gave him a wink, and said, “Just make sure I get that phone back, okay?”

I put my good arm around Marti’s slender waist, looked down at her, and noted the longing in her eyes.  It was as if a floodgate of emotions was suddenly opened and I felt myself melting in her arms.  

I turned and nodded at the Old Man and Eric.  With my arm around Marti, we headed out of the room.

“Anybody hungry?” I asked.

“You could say I’ve worked up an appetite, yes,” Marti said with a devious grin.

I smiled back at her.  I hadn’t felt this good in a really long time. 

EPILOGUE

 

Three days later, I was driving across the high desert of Arizona, heading for NeXus headquarters in Virginia, windows down, music on low.  Marti was in the passenger side bucket seat, sandals off, and her bare feet are tucked up to one side, underneath her.  The dry desert air was blowing her hair back and her dress up, both of which I was enjoying.  We weren’t talking very much, just enjoying the moment. 

Some time later we heard on the radio that “ . . . the limo belonged to a Mr. Waxman of Waxman Industries.  He was a giant in the world of trade negotiations with countries such as China.  However, recent reports indicated he had previously undisclosed ties with the Chinese government that brought into question his impartiality.  The Senate committee on Foreign Relations had convened a special meeting and issued subpoenas.   Mr. Waxman and a close working associate were killed instantaneously.  It’s believed the driver was drunk at the time and lost control of the car, steering into oncoming traffic.  Mr. Waxman and an aide were killed instantly. This could set back trade negotiations with the Chinese for some time . . . ”

I turned the radio off, looked over at Marti who appeared to be enjoying the drive, and smiled to myself.

Just then my phone rang.  Marti shot me a questioning look.  She knew my phone number was limited distribution and wasn’t sure we were even in range of a cell tower.  She reached for the phone from the console tray it was sitting in.  The phone showed only a number, but as an NRC inspector, she had reason to recognize the number.  The White House was calling.

I took the phone and said, “Connor…”

 

~

Excerpts From

 

Off The Grid’

 

A Thriller By

 

Mark Lemke

 

 PROLOGUE

 

I

 

Nick Connor was a high functioning dead man.  He got out of the cab on Pennsylvania Avenue, near where visitors enter the White House, handed the cabbie two twenties, not asking for any change in return, and headed up the walkway towards the guard house.  He was carrying a brown leather valise, and was still dressed like a farm hand—smelled like one too.  He wore an old canvas jacket lined with comfortable corduroy, sleeves torn from brushes with barbed wire fences.  The dark, red splatter on the jacket looked like it could be transmission fluid or even spaghetti sauce—anything except what it really was.  His blue jeans were faded and worn, and the bottom of each pant leg was frayed in back as if he’d walked on them for months with his work boots.  An old ball cap, with dirty sweatbands around the bill, covered his long, ratty hair.  A short beard covered the cleft in his strong chin, which completed the look.

He was here to meet with the President of the United States and give him the information he requested to obtain months ago. He trusted that the president would know what to do with it. 

For weeks now he struggled with walking upright, his head pounding behind eyes that squinted to keep out the painful light due to debilitating cluster headaches.  He didn’t know he was bleeding into his brain and had an inoperable cerebral aneurism.  He didn’t know when the aneurysm burst it would spill blood into the subarachnoid space around the brain, where the blood would mix with his cerebrospinal fluid.  He didn’t know that subsequent spasm of the blood vessels—where the muscles that line the blood vessel wall contract and clamp down on the artery—and more bleeding from the original aneurysm would result in almost immediate death.  

What he did know was that he had business to take care of, and he was not about to fail.  Not now.  He’d come too far and knew too much.  He knew he didn’t have much time left.  Time.  The word would have made him laugh if his head didn’t hurt so much.  Knowing his future with certainty was comforting in a strange sort of way. Being on the brink of death also brought with it a finality he flirted with many times in the past; in the cold mountainous regions of Afghanistan, the war-torn cities in Somalia, and the sweltering hot jungles of the Philippines.  But today, death held no sway over him because today he had a plan.  Maybe it wasn’t a good plan, but it was a plan.  Only time would tell if it was a good one or not.  Time.  There was that word again.  He hadn’t realized how often it was used.

He was utterly tired and felt a need for room service and a good night’s rest . . . at least as good as he could get now.  He felt sixty years old, despite being just over half that age.  His meeting with the President of the United States would have to be necessarily brief. 

 He suddenly stopped walking, and turned his head to the side for no particular reason, as a strong premonition washed over him.  In the past, having a premonition was simply one of those things he’d experienced—hell, everyone experiences—but didn’t think too much about.  He knew it to be the anticipation of an event without conscious reason or previous warning.  In other words, knowing what is going to happen by purely psychic means—that feeling that “I’ve been here before.” Or maybe it somehow presaged future events.  But now he wasn’t so sure if this was a no-never-mind moment.  He wasn’t sure about a lot of things anymore.  He’d recently come across the term ‘quantum cosmology’ in a long exposé unfortunately written in language that an ordinary intelligent person—including he—couldn’t completely understand.  What he was able to glean from the article was simply that there are theories that speak to the exact process by which a premonition works. Schrödinger’s Cat (which he still couldn’t explain), parallel universes, the ‘many-worlds’ hypothesis, and their relationship to perceived reality, are all relevant to the topic, but mostly undecipherable and very much improvable. 

Despite the fact that it was over his head, he was not inclined to take a premonition lightly anymore.  And right now he had a premonition, which left him with the feeling that meeting with the president was a bad idea.  He suddenly felt more like a liability than an asset.  He was someone who knew too many details and too much secret information.  He naively thought he could just walk into the White House, give up all his information, and walk out again.  More than likely, he would be put on a plane to Guantanamo Bay and would not see the light of day for a long time, if ever.  If he was a threat to somebody before all this started, he was a peril to National Security now, and he would not be allowed to simply walk around unrestrained. 

He turned his back to the White House entrance and to any of the cameras that he was sure would be taking pictures and hurried away.

As he walked—stumbled more like it—Nick felt devoid of emotions.  He had no energy anymore and felt like an old man who had seen too much despair in his life.  He certainly had little enthusiasm left.  Just across the road was the Hay-Adams hotel.  He held firm to his valise, walked over to the hotel, and checked in.

II

 

The Hay-Adams, a historic boutique hotel, was originally designed and built as a residential hotel in the 1920s.  Now a luxury hotel, it resembles a private mansion where guests receive exceptional service in a discreet, intimate atmosphere.  Surrounded by panoramic views of the White House, Lafayette Square, Lafayette Park, and St. John’s Church, it’s the kind of place where you don’t ask the cost of a room.  If you needed to ask, you probably couldn’t afford it. 

Nick walked into the opulent lobby dressed more like a homeless person than the diplomats and politicos who would normally stay there, and drawing stares from the inconspicuous security personnel. 

At the Front Desk the well coiffed receptionist with a $200 manicure did a good job of being polite, despite his looks.  She smiled at him in a condescending way.

“May I help you sir?”

“Yes, I believe you may,” Nick said as he slid over one of his clean credit cards that had his real name on it.  It was the kind of card reserved for elite clientele—the Stratus Rewards Visa, more commonly known as the ‘white card,’ issued by invitation only—and it had the desired effect as the woman stared at the seldom seen white piece of plastic. 

“I’d like a suite on the top floor overlooking Lafayette Park.”

The woman ran the card and her face brightened noticeably.

“Certainly, Mr. Connor!  How many days will you be staying with us?”

Ah, yes.  The plan.  He simply said, “Two days.”  That would be plenty of time.

“Very good!” she said as she handed him a pen to sign in.  “If there is anything we can do for you, please don’t hesitate to ask.”

“Thank you.  Perhaps you could arrange for some room service.  I’d like a six-pack of ice-cold beer, a nice rib eye steak—rare—and something for desert.  You pick.  I’m sure you know what’s good around here.  Give me about 30 minutes and then have it sent to my room.”

“Absolutely, sir!”  Then, without looking directly at him, she asked,  “Would you like to me send the valet up?” she said with as much tongue as she could get in her cheek.  “It looks like you’ve been . . . travelling.”

Nick smiled at her.  “Nah.  I’m fine.  But I’m going to be expecting somebody later.  When he shows up, please see that he’s shown up to my room.”

“Of course, Mr. Connor.  I’ll arrange a reception room for your use if you’d like.”

“That’s thoughtful of you, but it won’t be necessary,” Nick said.  “One more thing.  Could you please have a doctor come to my room?”  He knew a place like this would have a concierge doctor either in the hotel or nearby. 

“Right away!”

“Thank you.” 

Nick took his card key, picked up the worn leather valise he arrived with, and headed to the elevators for the short ride to the top floor and his room. 

The suite had two doors to make it look grander, though only one actually opened.  Once inside, he looked longingly at the bed with its creamy white down comforter on it, but got out his cell phone and dialed the number for his number two man in NeXus, Eric Jansen.

Eric answered the phone in the usual way, “Jansen.”

“Eric, it’s me.”

“Nick?” Eric said incredulously.  “Is that really you?”

“Yeah, it’s me.”

“Where’ve you been?  I haven’t heard from you for quite a while.  I was starting getting worried.”

He paused to reflect on the question Eric just asked and what the real answer was.  It was an innocuous question, something you say when you haven’t seen someone in a long time.  But the question had new meaning for him now. 

“I’ve been on an op,” was all he decided to say.  “I’ll fill you in when you get here.  I’m in D.C., at the Hay-Adams.”

“The Hay-Adams?  Not exactly low profile.  Is Marti with you?”

Nick cringed.  “Yeah, sure,” he lied.  She was, after all, in a manner of speaking.

“Hey, you don’t sound too good.  Everything alright?”

“I’m just tired.  Get here as soon as you can, okay?”

“I’ll be there in a couple of hours.”  NeXus headquarters, in Williamsburg, Virginia, wasn’t far away by company jet.

“See ya then,” Nick said and hung up.

He figured he had time to take a shower before his food and the doctor showed up.  He could wash off one or two layers of grunge and climb into the soft terry robe hanging in the closet in the meantime. 

Twenty minutes later, there was a soft knock on the door.  Nick pulled on the robe, got out his Sig Sauer and went over to look through the peephole in the door.  He saw a man holding a black bag—the doctor.  He opened the door, stood back, and his heart started to palpitate.  His head felt like it would explode, as his vision started to blur and blood began to trickle out his nose.  His legs went rubbery as he started to buckle and slump to his knees.  The doctor couldn’t stop him from going down but was at least able to break his fall.  As suddenly as it started, it stopped.  Nick sat still on the floor for a minute, getting his breathing and heart rate back under control.

“Thanks for coming, doc . . .” he said between deep breaths.

“Do you think you can stand?” the doctor asked worriedly.

“I think so.”

“Let’s get you to the bed,” the doctor said as he put his arm around Nick’s back and under his arms, helping Nick up and then to the bed, where he propped up a couple of pillows and laid Nick back on them. 

“Can you tell me what that was all about?” he asked as he reached for his bag.

“I’ve been out of the country recently.  I may have picked up a bug.”

“Well, let’s have a look.”  He pulled his stethoscope out of his bag and started to listen to Nick’s heart and lungs.  He took his pulse, looked at his eyes, his ears, and in his throat.  He got out a blood pressure cuff, wrapped it around his left arm, and pumped it up, then listened to his pulse as he slowly let the pressure off the cuff. 

“Doc, you don’t look so good!” Nick quipped with a weak smile on his wan face.

“Mr. Connor, we need to get you to a hospital,” the doctor said with a sense of urgency in his voice. 

“Nah.  I think I’m going to stay here for a while . . .” he said, his voice trailing off as if worn out from the effort.

“Mr. Connor, I don’t think you know how serious your condition is! Your skin is pasty and your blood pressure is dangerously low.  I’m seeing some bleeding in the back of your eyes.  I don’t know what caused this but you need to get some help soon.  What country did you say you were in?”

“I didn’t say.  Doc, I’m well aware of my condition.  I just need you to give me something to keep me going for a while.  Can you do that?”

The Doctor put his equipment back in his bag.

“I don’t work that way, Mr. Connor,” he said disapprovingly.

Nick caught his eyes and looked deep into them.  “This is important, doc.  Will you help me?”

Something in Nick’s eyes mesmerized the concierge doctor. 

“I’ll help you if you agree to go into the hospital if your condition deteriorates.  Deal?”

“Deal,” Nick said, knowing that the promise was irrelevant.

The doctor reluctantly got out a cotton swab, some alcohol, and cleaned a spot on Nick’s left arm.  He pulled out a syringe and a small bottle of something, drew it in and injected it into Nick’s arm.  He affixed a small bandage to the injection site and then closed up his bag.

“I’ll be back to check on you in a little while,” he said dourly.

Nick was already starting to feel better and relaxed on the bed.  Soothing warmth had started in his stomach and began to spread outward from there.  His head stopped throbbing and for the moment, he felt ‘good’

“Thanks, doc.  I’d get up to show you out, but . . .”

There came another knock at the door.

“Do you mind getting that for me?”

The doctor opened the door and a young man in a coat and tie brought Nick’s food in under a silver warmer.  He also brought in six longneck Yuengling beers—in a well iced high-top of all things—and a small table adorned with a white tablecloth, linen napkins, and a single red rose in a cut glass vase.  The man swept in, saw the doctor standing there with Nick lying on the bed, and put the food on the coffee table in the spacious living area.

“I’ll just leave this here for you,” he said as he hurried out of the room as quietly as he had entered.

“Thanks,” Nick called out after him as the door was closing.

The doctor said, “Call me if you need anything.  I’ll put my card on the desk, over there,” pointing to the writing table in the corner.

“Thanks again, doc,” Nick said as he made an effort to get off the bed to show the doctor out.

“Just get into bed and rest.  I’ll show myself out.”

Nick breathed out.  That would be fine by him.  He was comfortable where he was and whatever the doctor injected him with was giving him a nice buzz.  He lay there a few more minutes but the aroma of the charbroiled steak was just too good for him to let it sit there and get cold.  Besides, it might be his last meal for a long time.  He swung his legs over the side of the bed and slowly worked his way over to a soft couch in front of the coffee table.  He plunked himself down, opened one of the beers, and starting eating the delicious food.

Three beers later, steak gone, and the luscious raspberry tart desert finished, Nick climbed back onto the bed and on top of that cozy looking comforter.  He fell asleep immediately, content for the time being.

III

 

He was startled awake by another knock on the door.  As he opened his eyes, he looked out the open curtains and saw that night had descended on the capital city.  He must have been asleep for hours.  He shook his head to get rid of the cobwebs as the knock on the door was repeated. 

He swung his legs over the side of the bed again and gingerly got to his feet.  He was pleased he didn’t fall over.  He grabbed his gun again and went to the door.  He looked through the peephole and opened the door.

“Hey, Nick!” Eric said with genuine enthusiasm in his voice as he held out his hand, walking into the room. 

“Come on in,” Nick said as he let Eric in the room.

Eric’s tone changed when he looked closer at his boss and friend.  “What the hell happened to you?”  Nick knew he looked like he’d been in a POW camp for a few months.  He had lost a lot of weight, his hair was disheveled, he had bags under his eyes, and he was white as a ghost.

“Hey, want some food?  They have pretty good room service here.”

“I’m okay.  I’ll take one of those beers though,” he said eyeing one of the remaining three soldiers. 

“Grab me one while you’re at it,” Nick said as he shuffled over to the couch again and plopped down. 

“Man, you look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet.  You sure you’re okay?” Eric asked as he handed Nick a beer.

“I’ll admit, I’m a bit tired, but then I didn’t ask you here so you could act like my mother.  Chill, man.  I’ve got to bring you up to speed on some things.”

Eric sat down on the couch across from Nick and said, “I’m not going anywhere.”

After that he remained quiet, knowing better than to ask him a bunch of dumb questions.  A late spring storm settled in over D.C., and a rumble of thunder made Nick squirm.  He went over to the window and watched rain fall gently on the streets below him. 

“You ever heard of Operation Evening Star?”  Nick asked in a way that sounded more like a thought he was having, rather than a question he expected an answer to.

Unsurprisingly, Eric said, “No.” 

“You’re going to find this interesting then,” Nick said as he turned back to face his friend.

He picked up his beer, drained half of it and started talking in a low, soft voice.  

“I guess you could say it started on March 17, 1978.  It actually started decades before that, but for the time being we’ll start in 1978, if that’s okay with you.”

“Hey man, it’s your nickel.”

“Okay then.  On March 17, 1978, somewhere above the Arctic Circle, the USS Batfish, one of our nuclear fast attack submarines, showed up to intercept and track a Soviet submarine—which it did for fifty days, undetected.  The Batfish snuck up on her and collected a ton of information, including sound signatures from the reactor plant, turbine generators, motor generators, ventilation, the screw, and even the ops they were running.”

Nick stopped to catch his breath and have more beer.  He hadn’t had any in a while, and it was cold and tasty.  Eric was staring at him, wondering how he knew so much about submarines all of a sudden. 

“The government code-named it Operation Evening Star.  Scuttlebutt is the Soviets didn’t know that the Batfish had followed them for so long, until US Navy Chief Warrant Officer John Anthony Walker sold us out and gave them the information.  We finally busted his ass in 1985 for espionage.”

“Yeah, I remember reading something about that,” Eric said, wondering how Nick knew all this and wondering where this was going.

“Bear with me on this,” Nick said, sensing Eric’s confusion.  “The information the Batfish collected was buried so deep and so dark that literally only a few people knew about it for thirty years.  They were feeding the Navy all the intel they were collecting, as they were collecting it.  That’s how we know so much about what they learned.  But here’s where it gets interesting.”  He paused as if remembering back.  “After fifty days of shadowing that Russian sub, the Batfish went dark and was never heard from again.  The Navy claimed it was rough seas that caused them to sink.  Secretly they suspected that the Russian sub found them and sunk them.  Either way, they lied.”

“Well color me surprised.  The military lied about what they knew,” Eric said with considerable sarcasm.

Nick ignored him.  “To this day they’ve never explained what happened to the Batfish, nor did they explain how the Batfish was able to remain undetected for so long either.”

Nick paused and finished the rest of his beer.

“But I know how they did it,” he said, as he looked out the window. 

Eric looked at him.  “How could you possibly know what happened in 1978 if the military won’t release the information?  And why is that so damn important?”

Nick continued to stare straight ahead out the window, not really seeing anything, feeling the beginning of another migraine coming on.

“It’s important because I’m the only person alive who knows where the USS Batfish is.  And for that, someone wants to kill me.”

 

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

 

This book took exactly 18 years, three months, 12 days, and 17 hours to complete, and would never have been finished without persistent, yet gentle encouragement from my wife, Jeanne.  She was also my first editor and biggest supporter.  She helped me by reading the final revision out loud with me, so we could make the ‘final’ set of changes.  Her support and understanding has been invaluable to me throughout this project.  Thank you for helping me bring this ridiculous idea of writing a book, to fruition!

Editing the book was a joint effort by everyone who read the draft versions.  My daughter Megan and my sister Paula helped me with ideas, corrections, and encouragement.  Marilyn, who edits professional writing for a living, fixed all the syntax problems and eliminated all the superfluous commas.  My son-in-law Mark added his ideas and drew the illustration.

The setting for this contemporary thriller is the highly controversial world of commercial nuclear power.  Like all good tales, this book is a work of fiction.  Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of my imagination only, or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is coincidental. 

 

Red North! © 2012 by Mark Lemke

 

All rights reserved. Copyright under Berne Copyright Convention, Universal Copyright Convention, and Pan-American Copyright Convention. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission of the author.

 

ISBN 978-0-615-58992-3

 

Cover design by Natasha Snow

 

 

 

Thrillers By Mark Lemke

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. Red North!

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. Off The Grid

 

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p<>{color:#000;}. The Elephant’s Foot

 


Red North!

Jansen and Stone bobbed up and down in their small boat just offshore from The Headlands Nuclear Power Plant, making every effort to look like they were fishing instead of making plans to seize control of the plant. With help from an inside source, they steal a confidential security report, and then use it to infiltrate and take over the plant. Nick Connor, ex-Green Beret, now security specialist, must develop an impossible strategy to break in and take back the world's most secure nuclear plant. Nick Connor spent years in the shadow world of Special Forces, until a final encounter left him bloodied and in line for the Medal of Honor. He left the military and put together a company called NeXus, where he puts his special skills to use to help evaluate security the commercial nuclear power industry. While at The Headlands, where nothing is as it seems, Nick and his team find themselves embroiled in the tangled world of corporate espionage, where they must out-think Waxman Industries and do the impossible in order to protect The Headland's Nuclear Power Plant, off the coast of northern California. Red North! takes you inside a nuclear power plant and catapults you into the frightening world of nuclear terrorism. In a rich blend of intrigue and details of the workings of a nuclear power plant, Red North! will keep you up nights, wondering at the possibilities.

  • ISBN: 9781311544308
  • Author: Mark Lemke
  • Published: 2016-03-28 17:35:31
  • Words: 115767
Red North! Red North!