Stirling McRae should have known he couldn’t escape his duty, even deep inside the forests of northeastern Alaska, a hundred miles from civilization.
No, it found him in the form of a grimy terrorist in an orange hunting vest and cap. Only, said terrorist hadn’t a prayer of escaping the McRae brothers. At least that’s what Mac told himself as another branch slapped him across the face and he plowed through a bramble of thistle.
So much for having some hang time with his brother. Brody would probably deck him the next time Mac suggested they go fishing together.
He heard Brody behind him, thundering like a bulldozer through the forest, occasionally yelling his name.
Mac didn’t stop. Couldn’t. He’d been hunting Ari Al-Hasid and members of his cell for nearly three years. It seemed sheer dumb luck that he happened upon Al-Hasid now at the height of the summer pumping season and near one of the weakest points in the pipeline that was scheduled for replacement.
The river of black gold inside a forty-eight-inch-wide, double-steel-walled pipe, referred to as the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), stretched eight hundred miles from the northern slope of Alaska to Valdez. Difficult to monitor, even harder to protect, it was one of the most vulnerable terrorist targets in all of America.
A target that Al-Hasid and his group had been plotting to attack for years, according to the maps and sketchy intel that littered Mac’s office at the FBI.
Perhaps this wasn’t dumb luck but good hunting. For months Mac had suspected that Al-Hasid and his cell would launch their attack this summer. He just never expected it during his annual fishing trip with Brody.
Okay, maybe a little, which was why he had guided Brody near a salmon stream that ran parallel to the pipeline. Just to follow his gut and keep an eye out, despite his boss’s skepticism. After all, Bureau Chief Tanner Buchanan had ordered him out of the office . . . not out of his skin.
And bingo. Just as he and Brody were motoring south toward a promising run of chinook salmon or arctic grayling, they had startled Al-Hasid checking his weapon only thirty feet from the pipeline. He’d looked up, guilt on his face, and bolted.
Now Mac could barely make out Al-Hasid’s form, a sickly orange blur between a stand of bushy black spruce. If Mac caught him, he might be able to breathe a little deeper, sleep more than two or three hours at a stretch, and rip down one of the many mug shots and wanted posters clipped on the office bulletin board.
He needed to get out into the open and close the distance between them. But he knew Al-Hasid carried a .338 Winchester, a weapon that could blow a nice hole through a bear and lay waste to a man. Mac needed the trees for protection, even if he was picked off like a Lakers forward.
“I’ll cut him off!” Brody yelled.
Mac glanced behind him, saw Brody heading for the clearing. His brother didn’t know the first rule about suspect apprehension: don’t announce your intentions to the enemy. For the second time in ten minutes, he wondered if he should stop, call the sighting in, and let the on-duty heroes handle Al-Hasid.
No, not if it meant Al-Hasid escaped.
Mac parted the brush with his gloved hands.
Mac froze. Not around the pipeline!
A scream rent the air.
He whirled and felt his pulse in his throat when crows scattered into the sky.
Mac dived after Al-Hasid, blood pounding in his ears. More than fifty hunters had accidentally hit the pipeline over the years without puncturing it, but a shot from a .338 just might—
Another shot. It pinged against metal.
Mac ducked, plowing nearly headfirst into a tree. “Stop shooting!”
He crouched behind the larch and peered out, feeling sweat bead under his woolen cap. His feet felt clunky and chapped in his hiking boots; his body trembled under the layers of wool.
“Get away from me!” Al-Hasid shouted into the trees. “I ain’t done nothin’!” He sounded drunk, his accent slurred. No doubt Al-Hasid had perfected redneck lingo after living in the country for the past ten years under an assumed name.
“Throw down your weapon! I’m a federal agent.”
Mac peeked out, saw Al-Hasid searching the forest. Peeling off his vest, Mac crept along a fallen log, then angled toward the terrorist. He schooled his breath and heard Al- Hasid’s labored breathing just ahead.
Al-Hasid scanned the forest where Mac had been, then beyond toward the pipeline clearing. The sun glinted off the metal, rays of heat rippling the air surrounding it.
A branch cracked.
Mac stiffened. He glanced toward the sound, and his stomach dropped when he spotted Brody hunkered down, sneaking along the pipeline, peering into the forest.
Al-Hasid raised his gun.
“No!” Mac launched himself at Al-Hasid just as the gun reported. The recoil knocked him in the face even as he tackled Al-Hasid.
The terrorist elbowed him, thrashing.
Mac hung on, fighting to clear his head. He tasted blood running from his mouth or maybe his nose. Al-Hasid took out
Mac’s breath with a jab to the ribs.
The gun went off again.
Gulping for air, Mac grabbed the barrel and ripped it from Al-Hasid’s grip.
Al-Hasid rolled to his knees and swung at Mac’s face.
Mac dodged and muscled Al-Hasid into a guillotine hold, one arm locked around his neck, squeezing off the blood supply to his brain. If Mac could hold him, in a moment Al-Hasid would pass out. Mac wasn’t a fan of UFC wrestling for nothing.
Al-Hasid slapped at Mac’s head, wringing his ears.
Mac gritted his teeth and held on.
Al-Hasid started wheezing. Still the man kicked, wasting the last of his energy on flimsy punches. He finally slumped atop Mac, his body heavy.
Mac let him go, checked his breathing, then whipped off his bootlace and tied the terrorist’s hands. He heard rain begin to fall softly, wetting the leaves, the ground.
The sound filled Mac’s ears even as he propped Al-Hasid up, slapped at his face. He stood, dread pooling in his stomach as realization rushed him.
No, not rain.
He held out his hand, and the blood of the earth fell from the sky. One drop, two—black, thick, and sticky.
The pungent smell turned Mac’s stomach as he tasted his worst fears. Running toward the clearing, he saw that the ground had already turned black and soggy. A geyser of oil plumed into the sky from a gash in the side of the pipeline.
He needed his radio.
He needed his four-wheeler.
He needed to get to the nearest pumping station and tell them to close the valves.
“Brody!” Mac turned as he yelled his brother’s name. The fact that Brody hadn’t appeared to jump Al-Hasid suddenly felt odd. . . . “Brody?” Oh, Lord, please—
His gaze caught a shadow on the ground just inside the rim of forest.
“No!” Mac nearly fell as he scrambled toward his brother. He hit his knees as he knelt and turned him over.
Brody groaned, blood-drenched hands pressed against his gut.
Oh no. Mac’s breaths thundered in his chest, panic shutting out every scrap of training. He pulled off his hat and pressed it against Brody’s wound. “Why did you follow me?”
Brody closed his eyes, leaned back onto the ground. “I’m in a bit of a barney here, Mac.” His voice sounded strangely weak, and it took another swipe at Mac’s calm.
“I gotta get you some help.” Mac reached out awkwardly, not sure how he’d carry his younger brother now that the man had surpassed him in size. Like true Scots, they weren’t small men, but Brody had taken from the McRae side, warriors down the line. His girth and muscle had made him the grappling champ of Deadhorse High.
Mac pulled Brody’s arms over his shoulder. Oil rained down around them, and he fell trying to get Brody into his embrace.
Brody cried out in a burst of agony. “I can’t. Go . . . go get the four-wheeler.” His face had turned chalky white. “Go.” He nearly pushed Mac.
Mac stumbled back, blinking at Brody. “Brody, I’m so—”
Aye. Mac raced back to their encampment. His breath felt like razors inside, but fear pressed him through the pain. He slipped once, then twice, and fell face-first in the oil. He spit out a mouthful of filth as he scrambled to his feet.
Mac found the four-wheeler right where he’d sprung off it. In seconds he had it turned around and gunned it back toward Brody. He dug out his high-frequency, two-way radio while he drove, now thankful he’d packed it, despite Brody’s ribbing.
“Hello, anyone!” He couldn’t remember the EMS channel or even pipeline security. He scanned the channels. “Hello? Please!”
“Pipeline Security here. Identify please. Over.”
“Agent Stirling McRae, FBI. I have an injured camper just north of the Kanuti River. Need assistance. Out.”
Crackle came over the line.
Mac slowed as he reached the oil-slicked area but plowed through, shielding his eyes as the oil continued to rain from the sky. “Hello?”
“Roger that. We’ll send assistance. Over.”
“No! I’m coming to you.” He braked and leaped off the ATV, stumbling toward Brody.
Thank the Lord, he was still breathing.
“Be advised that the nearest ranger station is at Cross Creek, seventeen clicks northwest of the line. Over.”
Seventeen miles. Mac crouched beside Brody. Oil slicked his face, and his breathing seemed labored. Blood mingled with oil, and Mac hadn’t the first clue how much blood Brody had lost. He’d never make seventeen miles.
“Negative. He’ll never make it. We need an emergency extraction.” He glanced at the plume of oil. “And be advised that there is a leak in the pipeline at my position.”
Mac could imagine the security agents spilling their coffee on their jumpsuits.
“Say again? Over.”
“A leak. Terrorist shot the pipeline. But I need medical assistance.”
“Give us your exact position. We’ll find you. Out.”
Mac glared at the two-way, wishing he could somehow reach through it to throttle the dobbers on the other end of the line. “Need medical—”
Overhead, he heard a buzz, a low hum that anyone who’d lived in the bush for longer than a week would know immediately.
A plane. A beautiful white-hulled bird with red stripes floating in the sky like a gift from heaven. Such a bird could land on the Dalton Highway, just a skip away.
If God was on his side, that beautiful little bird would already be turned to the Fairbanks Airport frequency, the same one he’d used during his flight-training days.
“Hello? I’m talking to the plane flying over Cross Creek. Come in, please.”
“Please! Come in.”
“Sir, this channel is authorized by the FAA for air-traffic control—”
“My brother’s been shot!” Mac felt himself unraveling. “Please, will the plane overhead come in—?”
“This is November-two-three-seven-one-Lima; how can I help you?”
Yes, yes! “I have an injured man here. He’s in bad shape. I need a life flight to Fairbanks. Please, can you land on the Dalton? I’ll meet you.” Mac held the two-way against his forehead, trembling.
Static. Then, “That’s a negative. November-two-threeseven- one-Lima is en route with another life flight. I’m sorry but I—”
The line went static. The plane came into view. He stared at it as it flew over, a long moment when his heart stopped beating and turned to a singular gripping pain in the center of his chest.
Then it vanished.
No. He felt sick, hollow. His knees buckled.
“Mac?” His brother opened his grease-covered eyes, reached out, and curled his fist weakly into Mac’s jacket. “Get me outta here.”
Mac nodded, grabbed Brody by the collar, and dragged him over the slick ground to the four-wheeler. He could still hear the sound of hope dying in the distance.
As he draped Brody over the back of the ATV, wincing as he groaned, Mac made a promise.
If his brother died, he would never forgive that pilot.
“Brother of FBI Agent Killed in Freak Accident.”
Andee MacLeod read the headline slowly. And again.
Then closed her eyes, feeling a wave of guilt. Choices. Her life felt defined by them, by regret and confusion.
She scanned the article, wincing at the mention of an aborted possible rescue. She folded the newspaper, picked up her cold coffee, and dumped them into the trash as she exited the hospital cafeteria. What that reporter didn’t know was that she’d been responsible for two deaths that day . . . indirectly at least.
The woman she’d been life flighting had bled out while Andee circled the airport for a third time, waiting for the weather to clear.
She hadn’t had a choice to answer the panicked call for help, not really. But there were times when her decisions seemed to rise up and strangle her.
Andee stopped in at emergency services, waving to the night nurse. “I’m going home. I’ve got my pager.”
The nurse nodded.
Andee stepped into the cool night air. June’s eternal sun and energy would eventually mellow into normal days of sunrise and sunset. By late September the sun would turn reluctant to crest over the terra firma of Alaska, and night would steal into every nook and cranny of life. Before the deep freeze of winter, Andee would head south toward sunshine and her mother.
And her real family—Micah, Dannette, Sarah and Hank, Conner, Lacey, and maybe someday, Will. The memory of her friend Dannette—who now referred to herself as Dani—and Will at Lacey and Micah’s wedding last week filled her with a sweet warmth.
Team Hope. Her search-and-rescue pals were family— the kind who loved her despite her weaknesses or failures. Brother of FBI agent . . . the memory of the man’s panicked voice over the radio hovered in her thoughts, slicing through quiet moments to bring her back to that moment when she’d had to choose. She’d landed on the Dalton Highway a number of times before. But the life of the dying mother of four had been ticking away—and she’d kept altitude.
But what if it had been Sarah or Conner down there . . . hurt and dying? What if it had been her on the other end of the squawk begging for help? Would she ever forgive the pilot who’d turned his back?
Andee felt hollow as she walked to her Jeep in the parking lot, the midnight sun pooling on the hood.
According to the newspaper, the agent thought he’d been chasing a terrorist. Instead, he’d captured a drunk hunter with a
Magnum rifle who managed to spill over two hundred thousand gallons of oil on the ground. She had to cringe at that as she opened her door and slid into her vehicle. Doomsdayers said the sabotage of TAPS could happen. In the new age of Homeland Security, it felt far-fetched. Not now.
She, as well as every other citizen of Alaska, knew the importance of the pipeline to the way of life in the Lower 48, even the war on terror. During 9/11, panic had flowed from one end of Alaska to the other, putting every security agent, cop, and pipeline affiliate on high alert. In Valdez, they’d stopped loaded tankers and simply sent them out of port. It was a wellknown fact that even a small disruption in the flow of oil would cause it to cool, slow, and stop, costing millions of dollars in repairs, not to mention a shortage of oil across the nation and the return of the long gas lines of the early eighties. What was worse, her life flights north would grind to a standstill. Lives— at least in her neck of the woods—would be lost.
Andee had to wonder at the real story behind the so-called accident. She didn’t put it beyond the FBI to concoct a cover story to stave off public panic. Still, the agent’s brother had died, even if it hadn’t been part of a terrorist plot. She guessed that was something that might haunt the man on the other end of her radio into eternity.
Just like it haunted her.
She started the engine, pulled out, and headed to her efficiency apartment in Earthquake Park.
The entire story didn’t make sense. It had probably been a hunter, just as the news had reported. If some terrorist was going to sabotage the pipeline, it wouldn’t be a lonely hunter with a Magnum rifle.
And it would take a lot more than a desperate FBI agent to stop him.