Here’s a taste of PROTECTING TERRA for you
Terra Oenning pulled back the cuff of her black sweatshirt so she could glance at the luminous dial on her watch. Twelve thirty. In the morning. Damn! The people they were watching had been in the rental cabin since noon with nobody in or out. She and former SEAL Griffin Dunne had tracked them to this place outside this shitty little town in Massachusetts. Now they were waiting, hidden in the trees, to see what happened next. Since their arrival, there had been no action at all.
“Maybe they all fell asleep.” Griffin’s rough voice was soft in her ear.
“I hope not. Otherwise we’ll be camped out here in the trees until the sun comes up, and that’s not good.”
Their stealth depended on the cover of darkness.
“We have no idea how long they stay in the cabin,” Terra whispered to Griffin. “Right?”
“None. Because they fucking disappear even while agents have eyes on the place. That’s why we’re stuck here in the woods.”
“Do not arrest anyone,” they were told. “We want the big cheese, but we also need to find out where the final gathering spot for this vermin is.”
A confidential source had managed to get word to DHS that someone was sneaking terrorist assholes over the border from Canada and guiding them to a meeting place in the States. The problem was everything was so meticulously planned no one knew where the final gathering spot was. Three had already made it across before they even learned of it. When DHS managed to get eyes on the next two, they learned the route varied each time. The first handoff was always in the same place, but for the second stop the only commonality was all of them were in New England. And at the second rendezvous stop they’d up and disappeared into thin air.
They’d picked up this handoff at the usual spot in Maine and managed to switch cars twice to avoid being spotted. Where they went from here was the question. Which was why she and Griffin Dunne were hugging trees in the middle of the night. watching the piece-of-shit cabin, and waiting. Since their arrival, there had been nobody in or out of the house except the target who they had eyes on and the two men with him.
“We’re convinced something big is in the works,” their boss at Homeland Security, Hal Winters, had told them. “There’s a new jihadist group gaining power in the Middle East. It’s called Abna Allah, the Sons of Allah. With the information our source unearthed, we believe they may be part of it.” He snorted. “Their turn to take a shot at bringing down America, I guess.”
Griffin rubbed his chin. “Not good. Not good at all.”
“No kidding,” Hal agreed. “I can’t stress enough how even though we had eyes on two of them before this, they up and disappeared before our eyes. The agents who trailed them are experienced at this, so there’s something hinky here.”
“Why not pick them up, then?” Griffin had asked.
“Because we want to know where they’re all meeting up and to find out what the fuck is going on. We need you two to follow them and make sure they take the latest one to where they brought the others. Stake out the spot where they wait for the next pickup. That’s where these pieces of trash are somehow disappearing into thin air. I want to know how. And stop it.”
“Who’s bringing them into the country?” Terra had asked. “And where?”
“We have an idea who, and the crossover spot is in Maine. We have to find out where they end up so we can scoop them all up at once.”
“No clue where they might end up?” Terra had asked.
“None, and we’d better find out before they blow up the country, or whatever they’re planning.”
“We’re on it,” she’d assured him, glancing at Griffin, who nodded. “We’ll get it done.”
She intended to keep her word, no matter how long they had to hunker down in the trees.
She and Griffin Dunne had connected yesterday and followed this target and the two men with him to their current location. Now they had to find out where these people were going next so DHS could make its move. It was obvious this was just a stopping-off point, but what were they waiting for? Why didn’t they move along? And how had the others disappeared.
This was the first time she and Griffin Dunne had worked together. Hal had told her he was one of the top agents at DHS, sharp and focused and dedicated. They knew each other slightly from meetings they’d been a part of, but she was still unprepared for the shock of seeing him again. It was a good thing she was a disciplined agent because she’d forgotten her initial impression. Agent Griffin Dunne was the hottest thing to walk into her life in more years than she could count. A former SEAL, he was tough, skilled, disciplined, knowledgeable, and smart. And sexy as hell. He was all rough edges and a hard attitude. His rock-hard abs, his body toned from physical labor rather than gym work, his ragged-cut jet black hair, and the sexy scruff on his face could awaken urges she kept under strict control.
She had a feeling he’d been to hell and back a few times and had the invisible scars to show for it. No problem. A man like that made a good partner in this kind of situation, she told herself, but that was all.
She’d noticed him giving her odd looks now and then. It made her wonder if she’d given herself away at all. Lord, she hoped not. She tried to decipher what was going on in his brain, but he wasn’t easy to read. She hoped she wasn’t either because nothing was going to happen between them. No matter what. No way. This was an assignment. Sex didn’t belong here. She knew that very well.
But damn! What did she tell her hormones that were having a party?
Get your mind out of bed and back in the situation.
“Heads up.” Griffin’s whisper caught her attention. “Someone’s coming.”
She saw dim headlight illuminating the dirt weaving through the trees to the cabin. The vehicle lurched to a stop in the clearing in front, and the driver stumbled out.
“Griff.” She barely breathed the word into her throat mic.
“I see him. What the fuck?”
What the fuck was right, she thought. The driver, a male, stumbled up the two steps to the porch and banged on the door.
“Fred? Fred, you fucker, I know you’re in there. Open up.” Bang! Bang! “Come on. I need a place to shack up for the night.” Bang! Bang!
“Shit.” Griffin breathed the word into her earbud.
“Shit is right. Maybe if they don’t open the door for him, he’ll go away.”
“Fred? You can’t hide from me. There’s a car out here. And who the hell’s car is it, anyway? Not yours. You got a woman in there with you?” Bang! Bang! “Come on. How about sharing?”
Seconds passed before the door to the cabin was yanked open. A tall, lean man stood there outlined by the inside light.
The drunk stared at him. “You’re not Fred.”
“That’s right. You made a big mistake coming out here tonight.”
Two popping sounds spit out before she knew what was happening. The stranger collapsed on the two steps and fell backward onto the dirt. The man in the doorway was too backlit for Terra to get a good look at him.
“Hold your place.” Griffin’s voice was barely audible in her ear. “We have an assignment here. That’s what counts.”
“I know,” she whispered. “I just wanted…”
“Me, too, but we have to ignore it.”
Another man came to the door and looked at the body on the ground.
“We have to get rid of this. We can’t leave anything here, including it.”
“I know. Help me get him into his car. You know what to do.”
It was hard, but Terra, like Griffin, held in place while the dead man was wrestled into his vehicle. The man who had shot him drove off, telling his partner he’d see him before long.
After that, there was no activity for a long time. No other cars in or out, no people, nothing, not even the man who had driven off with the body. Thirty minutes went by. Terra shifted her body carefully to ease the strain on her legs then checked her watch again.
“Griff. It’s been forty-five minutes. Where the hell did he take that car and body to dump them? And why isn’t he back? How is he getting back?”
“Hold your position. I’m going to take a look.”
“Can’t. You have to hold.”
Damn it, Griff.
But she stayed where she was, watching him through binoculars, following him as much as she could as he circled the cabin.
The word jolted her.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“The damn place is empty. There’s no one in there.”
“What are you saying?”
Terra moved out of her hiding place and made her way carefully to the little building. Griffin came around and met her at the front.
“It’s empty,” he repeated. “I looked in the windows. The bedroom doors are open, so you can see inside. These fuckers have disappeared into thin air.”
Terra’s brow pinched. “But how? We’ve had eyes on this placethe entire time. Did they vaporize? What the hell happened to them? We need to go in and take a look.”
“Wait. Stop, Terra.” She had a foot on the second step when he grabbed her arm and dragged her back.
He looked around the area where he was standing, found a large rock, and rolled it onto the porch. Two seconds later, the place exploded, the force of the blast knocking them back.
“Fucking shit!” Griff stared at the site where the cabin had stood, now engulfed in a blaze.
Terra was shaking. She was an experienced agent, but being two seconds from getting blown to hell would unsettle anyone. “Did you expect that? What tipped you off?”
“The whole thing with the one guy disappearing, driving off with the man he killed, and then no one in the little house? They had some shit planned for eventualities. And I learned in the SEALs to expect anything and everything and use extreme caution.” He shook his head. “But you can bet they didn’t intend to blow themselves up. Something’s not right here. I’m calling the fire department then Hal.”
Terra stood off to the side, far enough away from the blaze it didn’t reach her, stunned by what had happened. Where had the two men disappeared to? She watched as Griff walked the perimeter of the blast area then pulled out his cell and punched in a number. By the time he reached where she was standing again, he’d finished his call.
“Hal is sending someone from the Boston office to help evaluate the scene. Here.” He guided her to a tree stump well outside the blast area. “Hang out here. You can sit, and you’ll be safe.”
She wanted to argue with him, tell him she was fine, but her knees were still shaking. They’d come damn close to being consumed by the fire or, worse yet, being blown to bits. Still, it irritated her that she, a seasoned agent, was so shaken by this.
“What are you going to be doing?”
“I want to check the entire area. See if there are any more booby traps, for one thing, before the others get here.”
Terra drew in a breath to steady herself. “Wait. I’ll walk with you. Two sets of eyes are better than one.”
He turned back to her. “That’s okay. Have a seat. This is a danger area.”
Her shakiness disappeared in a puff as irritation surged through her body.
“What the hell? I’m an experienced DHS agent, Dunne. I don’t need to be coddled.”
He shrugged. “Suit yourself. I was trying to keep you out of the hazard zone. You looked a little shaky to me.”
“I’m fine. Let’s do this.”
She worried he’d try again to shunt her to the side, but he was all business as they checked the whole area. They were careful to stay as far away from the flames as they could while also watching for any other booby traps. The fire consumed almost every bit of the small dwelling, leaving only ragged pieces of wood still poking up from the ground. By the time they’d finished, the local fire department had arrived along with two agents—a man and a woman—from the DHS office in Boston.
“Jay Stansfield.” The man held out his hand, first to Griff and then to Terra.
“And I’m Carol Elliott. Hal Winters read us in on this.”
“Thanks for coming,” Terra told them.,
“Yeah.” Griff nodded. “Maybe you can help us figure out how our targets disappeared.”
“I’m sure you guys walked the area,” Jay acknowledged, “but let’s give it another shot. Just in case. Then we can check the surrounding area.” Cabin
But not even two extra pairs of eyes could pick up anything, no matter how diligently they looked.
“The car they drove here was pretty much incinerated.” Terra rubbed her forehead as she looked around. “That seems to be their only means of transportation. So, how did they get away from here? And how did they get out without us seeing them? Between the two of us, we had eyes on both the front and back. The place isn’t that big.”
“Let’s keep looking. We’re missing something here.”
The Boston agents had brought two large thermoses of coffee with them, so they stood around letting the caffeine revive their systems while the fire department took care of the blaze. At last they got the all clear.
“Do you two have boots with you?” Jay looked from Griff to Terra.
They both nodded.
“Always prepared,” Terra assured them.
Griffin nodded.” Me, too. Let’s do this.”
Feet encased in heavy boots, they walked carefully through the slush and debris that had once been the cabin. One of the firemen was still watering the area down, but when Jay walked over to him he nodded, turned off the hose, and headed back to the fire truck. He returned with another firefighter, both carrying shovels. Terra watched as they began shifting the debris off the area where the floor had been.
“The old places weren’t built on concrete foundations or even pads,” Jay explained. There’s nothing but dirt beneath them with a wooden skirt concealing the space between the building and the ground. The place is soaked enough now we can take a closer look.”
“What are we looking for?” she asked Jay.
“Let’s see if I’m right, first.”
He took a flashlight out of his coat pocket and began examining each inch of what was left of the floor. He stopped and crouched, using his flashlight to study the area before waving to one of the firefighters.
“Can I get a hand here? Thanks.”
The firefighter used the edge of his shovel to scrape the floor area until there was virtually no debris of any consequence left on it. Then Jay began pressing at different points in the cleared area. One of the places he pressed down on apparently released a catch, and a trap door opened.
Jay turned to them and gestured. “Come take a look.”
Terra saw Griffin was as stunned as she was. In the opening, they could see a short set of stairs leading to the opening of a tunnel.
“Like the cartels use to smuggle people and drugs out of Mexico,” he said. “Carol and I worked out of the San Diego office and learned all about the tunnels running under the border. It was a good conduit for high-value targets until we pinched it off.”
Griff got down on his knees and peered into the opening.
“It would take a hell of a long time and a lot of sweat to dig this thing. And how come no one ever thought of looking for this before? This is the third time people have vanished like this.
“This was very hard to see, even if people were searching. If Carol and I hadn’t seen it a number of times coming in from Mexico, we never would have thought to look.
“That would take a hell of a long time to dig,” Terra pointed out. “And have to be planned well in advance.”
“Yeah. God knows when they started work on this. However, as long as no one found it, there’s no limit to the number of times it could be used.”
“That may be how the last two disappeared. How long have they been planning this to go to this much trouble?”
“And after they finished? Then what? Exit someplace at the end of the tunnel and be picked up?”
“You got it. That’s how we keep losing them.” Carol sighed. “If these guys are members of Sons of Allah, that explains why they don’t use any of the regular setups to sneak them in. They can easily make them disappear this way. Swallowed up into invisibility.”
Griffin’s phone had rung while they were talking, and he’d stepped away to answer. Now he walked back, stuffing it into his pocket.
“Hal wants us back in D.C. tomorrow,” he told Terra. “This is going to send a signal to whoever is doing this that they aren’t under the radar anymore. I mean, why blow up the cabin except to prevent whoever found them from searching it and trying to get fingerprints. He also said he’s got some additional info for us.”
“Sure.” She sighed. “I don’t need sleep, anyway.”
His mouth curved in a rare smile. “Glad to hear it. He’s sending a helo for us in the morning.”
“Good. I’ll sleep fast.”
Griff looked at the other two agents. “He asked that we send him a report on this ASAP.”
Carol laughed. “He never changes. I’ll do it when I get back to the office. Think yesterday will be quick enough?”
They all chuckled, the laughter a measure of relief from the tension gripping them.
“We’ll follow the tunnel,” Jay told them, “and put the details in the report. You guys look like you could use a hot shower and a soft bed.”
“Thanks.” Griff shook hands with both of the agents.
Terra followed suit, and the two of them trudged off to where they’d hidden their car. When Griffin glanced over at her, he was giving her one of those odd looks again. She wished she knew what the hell that was all about. Something was vibrating between them, and she had a sense he was fighting it as hard as she was.
She leaned back in her seat, eyes closed.
“Can’t wait for that shower and bed.”
“Yeah, that’s on my mind, too.”
But things didn’t turn out exactly as she’d expected.