2017: A military transport on a secret run to dispose of its deadly contents vanishes without a trace.
The present: A mass shooting on the steps of the Capitol nearly claims the life of Robert Brixton’s grandson.
No stranger to high-stakes investigations, Brixton embarks on a trail to uncover the motive behind the shooting. On the way he finds himself probing the attempted murder of the daughter his best friend, who works at the Washington offices of the CDC. The connection between the mass shooting and Alexandra’s poisoning lies in that long-lost military transport that has been recovered by forces determined to change America forever. Those forces are led by radical separatist leader Deacon Frank Wilhyte, whose goal is nothing short of bringing on a second Civil War. Brixton joins forces with Kelly Lofton, a former Baltimore homicide detective. She has her own reasons for wanting to find the truth behind the shooting on the Capitol steps, and is the only person with the direct knowledge Brixton needs. But chasing the truth places them in the cross-hairs of both Wilhyte’s legions and his Washington enablers.
The tanker lumbered through the night, headlights cutting a thin swath out of the storm raging around it.
“I can’t raise them, sir,” said Corporal Larry Kleinhurst, walkie-talkie still pressed tight against his ear.
“Try again,” Captain Frank Hall said from the wheel.
“Red Dog Two, this is Red Dog One, do you read me? Repeat, do you read me?”
No voice greeted him in response.
Kleinhurst pressed the walkie-talkie tighter. “Red Dog Three, this is Red Dog One, do you read me? Repeat, do you read me?”
Kleinhurst lowered the walkie-talkie, as if to inspect it. “What’s the range on these things?”
“Couple miles, maybe a little less in this slop.”
“How’d we lose both our lead and follow teams?”
Hall remained silent in the driver’s seat, squeezing the steering wheel tighter. Procedure dictated that they rotate the driving duties in two-hour shifts, this one being the last before they reached their destination.
“We must be off the route, must have followed the wrong turn-off,” Kleinhurst said, squinting into the black void around them.
Hall snapped a look the corporal’s way. “Or the security teams did,” he said defensively.
“Both of them?” And when Hall failed to respond, he continued, “Unless somebody took them out.”
“Give it a rest, Corporal.”
“We could be headed straight for an ambush.”
“Or I fucked up and took the wrong turn-off. That’s what you’re saying.”
“I’m saying we could be lost, sir,” Kleinhurst told him, leaving it there.
He strained to see through the big truck’s windshield. They had left the Tooele Army Depot in Tooele County, Utah right on schedule at four o’clock pm for the twelve-hour journey to Umatilla, Oregon which housed the Umatilla Chemical Depot, destination of whatever they were hauling in the tanker. The actual final resting place of those contents, Kleinhurst knew, was actually the Umatilla Chemical Agent Disposal Facility located on the depot’s grounds, about which rumors ran rampant. He’d never spoken to anyone who’d actually seen its inner workings, but the tales of what had already been disposed of there was enough to make his skin crawl, weapons that could wipe out the world’s population several times over.
Which told Kleinhurst all he needed to know about whatever it was they were hauling, now without any security escort.
“We’re following the map, Corporal,” Hall said from behind the wheel, as if needing to explain himself further, a nervous edge creeping into his voice.
He kept playing with the lights in search of a beam level that could better reveal what lay ahead. But the storm gave little back, continuing to intensify the further they drew into the night. Mapping out a route the old-fashioned way might have been primitive by today’s standards, but procedure dictated they avoid the likes of Waze and Google Maps out of fear anything web-based could be hacked to the point where they might be rerouted to where potential hijackers were lying in wait.
Another thump atop the ragged, unpaved road shook Hall and Kleinhurst in their seats. They had barely settled back down when a heftier jolt jarred the rig mightily to the left. Hall managed to right it with a hard twist of the wheel that squeezed the blood from his hands.
“Captain . . .”
“This is the route they gave us, Corporal.”
Kleinhurst laid the map between them. “Not if I’m reading this right. With all due respect, sir, I believe we should turn back.”
Hall cast him a condescending stare. “This your first Red Dog run, son?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“When you’re hauling a shipment like what we got, you don’t turn back, no matter what. When they call us, it’s because they never want to see whatever we’re carrying again.”
With good reason, Kleinhurst thought. Among the initial chemicals stored at Umatilla, and the first to be destroyed at the chemical agent disposal facility housed there, were containers of GB and VX nerve agents, along with HD blister agent. The Tooele Army Depot, where their drive had originated, meanwhile, served as a storage site for war reserve and training munitions, supposedly devoted to conventional ordnance. In point of fact, the military also stored nonconventional munitions there in secret, a kind of way station for chemical weapons deemed too dangerous to store anywhere else.
The normal route from Tooele to Umatilla would have taken just over ten hours via I-84 west. But a Red Dog run required a different route entirely off the main roads in order to avoid population centers. The point was to steer clear of anywhere people resided to avoid the kind of attention an accident or spill would have otherwise caused, necessitating a much more winding route Hall and Kleinhurst hadn’t been given until moments prior to their departure. A helicopter had accompanied them through the first stages of the drive, chased away when a mountain storm the forecasts had made no mention of whipped up out of nowhere and caught the convoy in its grasp. Now two-thirds of that convoy had dropped off the map, leaving the tanker alone, unsecured, and exposed, deadly contents and all.
Kleinhurst’s mouth was so dry, he could barely swallow. “What exactly are we carrying, sir?”
Hall smirked. “If I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t be driving this rig.”
Kleinhurst’s eyes darted to the radio. “What about calling in?”
“We’re past the point of no return. That means radio silence, soldier. They don’t hear a peep from us until we get where we’re going.”
Kleinhurst watched the rig’s wipers slap at the pelting rain collecting on the windshield, only to have a fresh layer form the instant they had completed their sweep. “Even in an emergency? Even if we lost our escorts miles back in this slop?”
“Let me give it to you straight,” Hall snapped, a sharper edge entering his voice. “The stuff we’re hauling in this tanker doesn’t exist. That means we don’t exist. That means we talk to nobody. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Kleinhurst sighed.
“Good,” said Hall. “We get where we’re supposed to go and figure things out from there. But right now . . .” His voice drifted, as he stole a glance at the map.
Suddenly Kleinhurst lurched forward, straining the bonds of his shoulder harness to peer through the windshield. “Jesus Christ, up there straight ahead!”
“Can’t you see it?”
“I can’t see shit through this muck, Corporal.”
Hall stubbornly held to his speed.
“Slow down, for God’s sake. Can’t you see it?”
“I can’t see a thing!”
“That’s it, like the world before us is gone. You need to stop!”
Hall hit the brakes and the rig’s tires locked up, sending the tanker into a vicious skid across the road. He tried to work the steering wheel, but it fought him every inch of the way, turning the skid into a spin through an empty wave of darkness.
“There!” Kleinhurst screamed.
“What in God’s name,” Hall rasped, still fighting to steer when a mouth opened out of the storm like a vast maw.
He desperately worked the brake and the clutch, trying to regain control. He’d been out in hurricanes, tornados, even earthquakes. None of those, though, compared to the sense of airlessness both he and Kleinhurst felt around them, almost as if they were floating over a massive vacuum that was sucking them downward. He’d done his share of parachute jumps for his airborne training and the sensation was eerily akin to those first few moments in freefall before the chute deployed. He remembered the sense of not so much being unable to breathe, as being trapped between breaths for an absurdly long moment.
The rig’s nose pitched downward, everything in the cab sent rattling. The dashboard lights flickered and died, the world beyond lost to darkness as the tanker dropped into oblivion.
And then there was nothing.
“The hand of God is upon You! He is my shepherd and I shall not want!”
Those were the last words high school sophomore Ben McDonald heard before the shooting started. He and the other students clustered around him from the Gilman School in Maryland were on a school field trip to the Capitol Building from their Baltimore prep school, the first such trip taken since academic life returned to a degree of normalcy following the endless coronavirus nightmare. Everyone had shown up in their school uniforms, the buses had left on schedule, and the students felt like pioneers, explorers blazing a trail back into the world beyond shutdowns and social distancing.
The reduction in Capitol tour group size was still in force and had necessitated the two bus-loads of students to be divided into five groups of fifteen, give or take, three chaperones allotted to each. Ben and his twin brother Robbie’s group had gone first and they had found themselves lingering on the Capitol steps, taking pictures and chatting away with their local congressman and senator who’d come out to greet and mingle with the students on the steps at the building’s east front.
“Why are you still wearing a mask?” one of them had asked the congressman, but Ben had already forgotten the answer.
He remembered checking the time on his phone just before he heard the first shots. Ben thought they were firecrackers at first, realizing the truth a breath later when the screams began and bodies started flying.
“I am doing the Lord’s work! I am a sacrifice to his word!”
Somehow Ben gleaned those words through the screams and incessant hail of fire. The shots were coming so fast he wasn’t sure if the shooter was firing on semi or full auto. The boy never actually saw him as more than a shape amid the blur before him, enveloping his vision like a dull haze. The thin sheer curtain drawn over his eyes didn’t keep him from recording bodies crumpling, keeling over, tumbling down the steps. The force of a bullet’s momentum slammed a classmate into him, sparing Ben the ensuing fusillade that turned the other boy’s back into a pin cushion.
The panic and shock of those initial seconds had stolen thought of Robbie from him. He wheeled about, covered in the blood of boy who had dropped off the scene.
Did he cry out his name or only think it? The steps around him looked blanketed in khaki and blue, pants and blazers that made up his Gilman uniform. The sound of gunfire continued to resound in his ears, but he wasn’t sure the shooter was still firing because no more bodies seemed to be falling. People were running in all directions, crying and screaming, Ben remaining frozen out of fear for his brother.
He saw his brother’s sandy blond hair draped down from one of the marble steps onto another. Nothing else at first, just the hair. Maybe he had dove atop a friend who’d been wounded to spare that kid more fire—that was Robbie. But there was no one beneath Him, and . . . And . . .
He wasn’t moving, his arms stretched to the sides on angles that looked all wrong. Ben dropped to his knees next to Robbie, his pants sinking into pooling patches of blood which merged and thickened beneath him. He felt something pinching him along right side of his ribcage and saw his blue shirt darkening with a spreading wave of red in the last moment before he collapsed next to his brother.
Excerpt from MURDER AT THE CDC by Jon Land. Copyright 2022 by Jon Land. Reproduced with permission from Jon Land. All rights reserved.
JON LAND is the USA Today bestselling author of fifty-eight books, including eleven in the critically acclaimed Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong series, the most recent of which, Strong from the Heart, won the 2020 American Fiction Award for Best Thriller and the 2020 American Book Fest Award for Best Mystery/Suspense Novel. Additionally, he has teamed up with Heather Graham for a science fiction series that began with THE RISING (winner of the 2017 International Book Award for best Sci-fi Novel) and continues with BLOOD MOON, to be published in November of 2022. He has also written six books in the Murder, She Wrote series of mysteries and has more recently taken over Margaret Truman’s Capital Crimes series, with his second effort, MURDER AT THE CDC, to be published in February of 2022. Jon is known as well for writing the film DIRTY DEEDS, a teen comedy starring Milo Ventimiglia and Zoe Saldana, which was released in 2005. A graduate of Brown University, he received the 2019 Rhode Island Authors Legacy Award for his lifetime of literary achievements.