The bomb went off, and for a minute, Harlan McClain was back on a dusty road in Iraq, his ears ringing. Everything around him moved in slow motion—debris flying, people falling.
There were screams. Always screams. The training never prevented the screaming.
You're not in Iraq. You're in Austin, Texas, and a bomb just went off. Get your backside in gear.
Over a decade of Marine Corps training taking over as chaos unfolded around him, he scanned the area for a quick damage assessment. Car bomb. Not a huge one—the blast radius wasn't anywhere near the size of something like Oklahoma City—but the dais where Governor Lila Lockhart had stood moments earlier was a ruin, reduced to jagged metal and splintered wood.
Was the governor buried somewhere under the debris?
The crowd surrounding the platform had already begun to disperse in panic, leaving behind some of the fallen. Many were still moving, trying to drag themselves to safety. Others lay motionless in the grass in front of the dais.
Triage, he thought, pulling out his cell phone to call 911. His call was one of many, he discovered. To his relief, the dispatcher told him units were already responding. But he couldn't sit tight waiting for the cavalry to arrive—some of these people might not survive the wait.
As he hurried toward the first fallen victim, a slim, dark-haired woman raced across his path, heading toward the collapsed platform. Blood stained the side of her face without obscuring her delicate profile. Pretty, he thought. Scared as hell. She looked familiar.
"Governor!" she cried, trying to pull away a piece of metal from the pile.
Harlan raced forward to stop her. The wrong move could bring the rest of the debris falling down on top of anyone buried underneath. And the last time he'd seen his boss, Bart Bellows had been only a few feet from Lila Lockhart.
"Don't try to move anything," he barked, his voice coming out more gruff than he'd intended.
She turned a fierce glare his way. "The governor is under there."
"And if you do the wrong thing, you could bring the rest of this mess crashing in on her."
Her nostrils flared. "You were with Bart."
"Harlan McClain." He nodded, remembering where he'd seen her before. "You're the governor's aide, right?"
"Stacy Giordano." She pressed her fingertips to the side of her head. When she drew them away, they were bloody. Her face went even paler. "What happened? Was it a bomb?"
"Yeah, I'm pretty sure."
She shook her head, looking stunned and scared. "But Frank Dorian is in jail."
He'd had the same thought. Even Bart, who was a suspicious old cuss, had thought that stopping Frank Dorian solved Governor Lockhart's problem. Dorian had come damned close to killing the governor before Wade Coltrane had stopped him, but once he was in custody, everyone at Corps Security Investigations had thought the trouble was over.
Harlan should have known better. Trouble never went away for long.
"We need to help the injured." He caught her arm, making her gasp. He loosened his grip, tried to soften his voice. She looked shell-shocked and he didn't need to spook her any further. "Go find as many able-bodied people as you can. We need to start some sort of triage—"
She straightened, as if she'd found her core of steel. "Okay." Her chin lifted and her eyes flashed with determination as she headed out in search of help.
He wasn't surprised when she returned a few minutes later with several people in tow. Most had clearly survived the blast themselves, their clothing covered with grime and fine debris. Some, like Stacy, had cuts and scrapes, but they all seemed relieved to have a purpose—something to take their minds off witnessing their world upended.
Sometimes, Harlan knew, finding something useful to do was the only thing that kept you sane in a crazy world.
He sent Stacy Giordano and her army in search of people who were moving around, while he checked on the ones who weren't moving. Unlike his civilian helpers, he had plenty of experience in dealing with mortality. Too much experience.
He found two D.O.A.s and a couple more who might not make it. As he moved to the next body—a man in a state trooper uniform lying near the mangled remains of the dais—he heard sirens approaching at a clip.
"It's Chip!" Stacy Giordano rushed past him toward the state trooper. "He's part of the governor's security detail."
Harlan raced to catch up, not sure what she'd find when she reached the trooper's still body.
Stacy crouched next to the man, her fingers on his carotid. "He's alive," she said briskly. Her hands moved over his body, searching for injuries. She moved with a sureness that caught Harlan by surprise. "You a nurse or something?"
She glanced at him. "No. Search and rescue medic training. There's a lump here at the back of his head. Skull feels intact, but it may be a concussion." She checked the man's eyes with a small penlight attached to a keychain. "Pupils reactive. Good sign."
The man made a low groaning sound.
"EMTs are arriving. We should back off, let them work," Harlan suggested.
"There aren't going to be enough for everybody. Not yet—"
He caught her arm and tugged her to a standing position. "We'll be in the way. And we don't know that we've seen the last of the blasts."
Her eyes widened. "You think there could be more coming?"
"It's possible," he admitted. "Sometimes there's a secondary device—"
"To hit the first responders." Stacy's jaw squared. "Then we'd better find the governor and get her out of here." She started toward the back of the dais before he could stop her.
He jogged to catch up.
"She was standing back here," Stacy called over her shoulder, "so if she dropped with the dais—"
Harlan spotted a flash of pale blue under the tangle of metal piping and wooden slats that had once constituted the bunting-draped platform where Lila Lockhart had declared her intention to run for higher office. Lila had been wearing a light blue suit, hadn't she?
"Lila!" Stacy dashed forward. "Lila, can you hear me?"
"I'm stuck under this damned mess!" Lila called out, her voice surprisingly strong. "I must've bumped my head—I was out a few seconds—"
"Hold still—you don't want to cause yourself more injury," Harlan warned. "Did you see what happened to Bart?"
"He was right behind me—"
"I'm over here." A man's voice, weak and strained, came from somewhere behind Harlan.
Harlan turned to see a large chunk of the dais had broken off and flown backward in the blast, landing sideways in a shallow rill in the capitol grounds. "Bart?"
"Knocked me clean on my backside!" Bart called out, his voice a little stronger. "But I can't get my chair up."
"Keep her from moving," Harlan ordered Stacy before he hurried to the second debris site. To his relief, Bart had been thrown clear of the twisted tangle of wood and metal, but the old man and his wheelchair both lay on their sides in the grass beyond the rill.
"I'm afraid this is probably a goner," Harlan said as he picked up the wheelchair, pushing it away from Bart's useless legs to free them. He grimaced as his scarred right hand twinged where he gripped the chair handle.
"Is Lila okay?" Bart asked.
"She's alive. She's trapped under the debris, but she sounds good. The paramedics are on the way."
"Who did this? Frank Dorian's in jail."
"I don't know." Harlan ran his hands over Bart's body, looking for injuries. He didn't feel any obvious broken bones, and the old man seemed bright-eyed and lucid. "Do you have any pain anywhere?"
Bart shook his head. "The explosion flung me like a rag doll, but I reckon I landed that way, too. Probably saved me a broken bone or two." He clapped his hand on one useless leg. "Not that I'd have noticed."
Harlan looked again at the wheelchair. The control panel had been damaged by the impact, but the wheels and frame looked surprisingly sturdy. "Let's get you into the chair and see if we can't do this the old-fashioned way."
He picked up Bart and set him in the wheelchair, taking another chance to look him over. Bart's well-seamed face was scraped and dirty, but he didn't seem to have any worrisome injuries, to Harlan's relief.
"Quit lookin' at me like I'm about to keel over any minute," Bart groused.
Harlan bit back a grin. "Let's go check on Lila."
The wheelchair wasn't easy to push over the uneven, grassy terrain, especially with Harlan's hand starting to ache as if he'd taken the shrapnel injury moments earlier rather than months ago. But Harlan was so relieved Bart seemed to be okay that he barely felt the pain.
When they reached the edge of the debris pile, Stacy was crouched outside near the governor, peering through the maze of steel and splintered wood. "It looks as if the main thing trapping her is that crossbeam," Stacy told Harlan as he hunkered down beside her. She pointed to a large steel support bar that once had been one of the stabilizing structures for the dais. It didn't look particularly heavy, but the way the bar was wedged between the ground and clumps of the fallen platform, it wouldn't budge. Lila was effectively pinned in place, unable to move more than a couple of inches in any direction.
"You're a big, strappin' fellow. Can't you move it?" Lila asked.
Harlan smiled. "No, ma'am, I'm afraid it's probably going to have to be cut apart to get you out." Especially with his hand being half-useless.
"What about coming at it from the back side?" Stacy asked. "Lila can't turn around because of the debris blocking her, but if I could crawl in and move some of the looser pieces out of the way—"
"No way I'm letting you go under there," Harlan said.
"Now you've done it," Lila murmured.
"Letting me?" Stacy stared at him as if she couldn't believe what she'd just heard. "Not your call, Mr. McClain. If there's even a chance there's a secondary explosive device—"
"There probably isn't."
"But if there is, and someone timed it to go off when it would do the most damage, the governor needs to be out from under there now." Stacy moved away, peering through the remains of the dais—no doubt in search of the best place to enter the maze of rubble. Harlan didn't know whether she was as crazy as a loon or incredibly brave.
"If I go in here and crawl through that narrow breach over there, I can reach the debris blocking the governor from behind," she said, sparing him a quick look.
He bit back his opinion that she was nuts to even try going into that mess, taking a look at what she was proposing instead. She was right about one thing—the path she'd pointed out definitely appeared to be the best angle of attack, and nobody any bigger than Stacy would be able to navigate the tight space.
But the plan was as risky as hell.
"Stacy, you don't need to take foolish chances here," Lila called, drawing her aide's attention back to her. "They'll get to me sooner or later," the governor added with a wry smile. "One of the perks of the job, you know."
Stacy bent down by the opening to make eye contact with the governor. "Waiting could be dangerous, Lila. We need to get you out of there."
"Think about Zachary, honey."
For a second, Stacy's face seemed to melt, her dark eyes liquid and soft, making Harlan wonder who the hell Zachary was. Then her shoulders squared, her chin jutted forward and she met Harlan's curious gaze.
"I can do this. The structure isn't going to get any more stable if we wait, and I probably have more close-quarters rescue training than any of these first responders."
Before Harlan could respond, an emergency medical technician rounded the corner and spotted them. His eyes widened as he caught sight of the governor buried under the debris, and he squatted next to Stacy.
"I'm not badly hurt, I don't believe," Lila said in a firm, strong voice that seemed to relieve the EMT. "I'm just stuck."
"I have a plan to get to her," Stacy said. She told the EMT what she had in mind.
Harlan hoped the man would tell her she'd lost her mind—maybe she'd listen to him. But the EMT nodded. "That'll probably work, as long as you don't dislodge anything supporting the pile. I can get you a hard hat and some protective gear—"
"I'll take the hat, but the gear will be too bulky to let me get through there."
"Be right back." The EMT hurried away.
"I thought he was going to tell you to stay out of his way and let him do his job," Harlan murmured.
"He knows me. I gave a cave extraction seminar for the Austin Fire Department a couple of months ago."
Harlan shook his head. "Who are you?"
Stacy shot him a faint smile. "I'm the daughter of an Ozark Mountain search and rescue coordinator. I was helping pull people out of caves before I started high school."
"You're sure you want to do this?" Harlan asked.
"Yes." Stacy looked scared but determined. "And we'd better get to it, fast," she added, her gaze sliding past him.
Harlan turned, following her gaze to find a convoy of news vehicles approaching the capitol grounds.
"Get your game face on," Stacy muttered. "We're about to be TV stars." She spotted the EMT returning with a hard hat and hurried to meet him, clearly eager to get to work.
Harlan dragged his attention away from her to watch the approach of the news crews. This whole mess was about to get a thousand times messier.
Right now, he thought, I'd rather be in Iraq.