By Sandra Brown
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Golden Branch, Oregon—1976
The first hail of bullets was fired from the house shortly after daybreak at six fifty-seven.
The gunfire erupted in response to the surrender demand issued by a team of law enforcement agents.
It was a gloomy morning. The sky was heavily overcast and there was dense fog. Despite the limited visibility, one of the fugitives inside the house got off a lucky shot that took out a deputy US marshal whom everybody called Turk.
Gary Headly had met the marshal only the day before, shortly after the law enforcement team comprising ATF and FBI agents, sheriff's deputies, and US marshals met for the first time to discuss the operation. They'd been congregated around a map of the area known as Golden Branch, reviewing obstacles they might encounter. Headly remembered another marshal saying, "Hey, Turk, grab me a Coke while you're over there, will ya?"
Headly didn't learn Turk's actual name until later, much later, when they were mopping up. The bullet struck half an inch above his Kevlar vest, tearing out most of his throat. He dropped without uttering a sound, dead before landing in the pile of wet leaves at his feet. There was nothing Headly could do for him except offer up a brief prayer and remain behind cover. To move was to invite death or injury, because once the gunfire started, the open windows of the house spat bullets relentlessly.
The Rangers of Righteousness had an inexhaustible arsenal. Or so it seemed that wet and dreary morning. The second casualty was a red-headed, twenty-four-year-old deputy sheriff. A puff of his breath in the cold air gave away his position. Six shots were fired. Five found the target. Any one of three would have killed him.
The team had planned to take the group by surprise, serve their arrest warrants for a long list of felonies, and take them into custody, engaging in a firefight only if necessary. But the vehemence with which they were fired upon indicated that the criminals had taken a fight-to-the-death stance.
After all, they had nothing to lose except their lives. Capture meant imprisonment for life or the death penalty for each of the seven members of the domestic-terrorist group. Collectively the six men and one woman had chalked up twelve murders and millions of dollars' worth of destruction, most of it inflicted on federal government buildings or military installations. Despite the religious overtone of their name, they weren't faith-based fanatics but rather wholly without conscience or constraint. Over the relatively short period of two years, they had made themselves notorious, a scourge to law enforcement agencies at every level.
Other such groups imitated the Rangers, but none had achieved their level of effectiveness. In the criminal community, they were revered for their audacity and unmatched violence. To many who harbored antigovernment sentiments, they had become folk heroes. They were sheltered and provided with weapons and ammunition, as well as with leaked, classified information. This underground support allowed them to strike hard and fast and then to disappear and remain well hidden while they planned their next assault. In communiqués sent to newspapers and television networks, they'd vowed never to be taken alive.
It had been a stroke of sheer luck that had brought the law down on them in Golden Branch.
One of their arms suppliers, who was well known to the authorities for his criminal history, had been placed under surveillance for suspicion of an arms deal unrelated to the Rangers of Righteousness. He had made three trips to the abandoned house in Golden Branch over the course of that many weeks. A telephoto lens had caught him talking to a man later identified as Carl Wingert, leader of the Rangers.
When this was reported to the FBI, ATF, and US Marshals Service, the agencies immediately sent personnel, who continued to monitor the illegal weapons dealer. Upon his return from a visit to Golden Branch, he was arrested.
It took three days of persuasion, but under advice of counsel he made a deal with the authorities and gave up what he knew about the people holed up inside the abandoned house. He'd only met with Carl Wingert. He couldn't—or wouldn't—say who else was sequestered with Wingert or how long they planned to harbor there.
Fearing that if they didn't move swiftly, they'd miss their opportunity to capture one of the FBI's Most Wanted, the federal agents enlisted help from the local authorities, who also had outstanding warrants for members of the group. The team was assembled and the operation planned.
But it became immediately obvious to each member of the team that Wingert's band had meant what they'd said about choosing death over capture. The Rangers of Righteousness wanted to secure their place in history. There would be no laying down of arms, no hands raised in peaceful surrender.
The lawmen were pinned down behind trees or vehicles, and all were vulnerable. Even a flicker of motion drew gunfire, and members of the Rangers had proven themselves to be excellent shots.
The resident agent in charge, Emerson, radioed the operations post, requesting that a helicopter be sent to provide them air cover, but that idea was nixed because of the inclement weather.
Special Ops teams from local, state, and federal agencies were mobilized, but they would be driving to Golden Branch, and the roads weren't ideal even in good weather. The team were told to stand by and to fire only in self-defense, while men in safe, warm offices debated changing the rules of engagement to include using deadly force.
"They're playing pattycake because one of them is a woman," Emerson groused to Headly. "And God forbid we violate these killers' civil rights. Nobody admires or respects us, you know."
Headly, the rookie of the team, wisely held his own counsel.
"We're feds, and even before Watergate, government had become a dirty word. The whole damn country is going to hell in a handbasket, and we're out here freezing our balls off, waiting for some bureaucrat to tell us it's okay to blast these murdering thugs to hell and back."
Emerson had a military background and a decidedly hawkish viewpoint, but nobody, especially not he, wanted a bloodbath that morning.
Nobody got what they wanted.
While the reinforcements were still en route, the Rangers amped up their firepower. An ATF agent took a bullet in the thigh, and, from the way it was bleeding, it was feared his femoral artery had suffered damage, the extent of which was unknown, but on any scale it was a life-threatening wound.
Emerson reported this with a spate of obscenities about their being picked off one by effing one unless…
He was given the authorization to engage. With their assault rifles and one submachine gun—in the hands of the wounded ATF agent—they went on the offensive. The barrage lasted for seven minutes.
Return fire from the house decreased, then became sporadic. Emerson ordered a cease-fire. They waited.
Suddenly, bleeding from several wounds including a head wound, a man charged through the front door, screaming invectives and spraying rounds from his own submachine gun. It was a suicidal move, and he knew it. His reason for doing it would soon become apparent.
When the agents ceased firing, and their ears stopped ringing, they realized that the house had fallen eerily silent except for a loose shutter that clapped against an exterior wall whenever the wind caught it.
After a tense sixty seconds, Emerson said, "I'm going in." He levered himself up into a crouch as he replaced his spent clip magazine with a fresh one.
Headly did the same. "I'm with you."
Other team members stayed in place. After checking to see that their guns were loaded with fresh magazines, Emerson crept from behind his cover and began running toward the house. Headly, with his heart tightly lodged in his throat, followed.
They ran past the body sprawled on the wet earth, took the steps up to the sagging porch, then stood on either side of the gaping doorway, weapons raised. They waited, listening. Hearing nothing, Emerson hitched his head and Headly barged in.
Bodies. Blood on every surface, the stench of it strong. Nothing was moving.
"Clear," he shouted and stepped over a body on his way into an adjacent room, a bedroom with only a ratty mattress on the floor. In the center of it, the ticking was still wet with a nasty stain.
In less than sixty seconds from the time Headly had breached the door, they confirmed that five people were dead. Four bodies were found inside the house. The fifth was the man who'd died in the yard. They were visually identified as known members of the Rangers of Righteousness.
Conspicuously missing from the body count were Carl Wingert and his lover, Flora Stimel, the only woman of the group. There was no sign of the two of them except for a trail of blood leading away from the back of the house into the dense woods, where tire tracks were found in the undergrowth. They had managed to escape, probably because their mortally wounded confederate had sacrificed himself, taking fire at the front of the house while they sneaked out the back.
Emergency and official vehicles quickly converged on the area. With them came the inevitable news vans, which were halted a mile away at the turnoff from the main road. The house and the area immediately surrounding it were sealed off so evidence could be collected, photos and measurements taken, and diagrams drawn before the bodies were removed.
Those involved realized that a thorough investigation of the incident would follow. Every action they'd taken would have to be explained and justified, not only to their superiors but also to a cynical and judgmental public.
Soon the derelict house was filled with people, each doing a specialized job. Headly found himself back in the bedroom, standing beside the coroner, who was sniffing at the stain on the soiled mattress. To Headly, it appeared that someone had peed in addition to bleeding profusely. "Urine?"
The coroner shook his head. "I believe it's amniotic fluid."
Headly thought surely he'd misheard him. "Amniotic fluid? Are you saying that Floral Stimel—"
What's with the hair?"
"That's how you greet a man returning from war? Nice to see you, too, Harriet."
Dawson Scott resented her summons—no other word for it—and made his resentment plain as he took a seat, then sank down into a bona fide slouch. He propped one ankle on the opposite knee, clasped his hands over his concave stomach, and yawned, knowing full well that his attitude would crawl all over her.
She removed her jeweled reading glasses and dropped them onto the desk. Its polished surface symbolized her new status as "boss." His boss.
"I've seen soldiers who just returned from Afghanistan. None looked like something a cat threw up." She gave him a scathing once-over, taking in his three-day scruff and long hair, which, since his time out of the country, had grown well past his collar.
He placed his hand over his heart. "Ouch. And here I was about to tell you how good you look. You're carrying those extra ten pounds really well."
She glowered but didn't say anything.
Twiddling his thumbs, literally, he took a long, slow survey of the corner office, his gaze pausing to appreciate the panoramic view through the wide windows. By craning his neck just a bit, he could see Old Glory hanging limp atop the capitol dome. Coming back to her, he remarked, "Nice office."
"Who'd you blow?"
Under her breath, she cursed him. He'd heard her say those words out loud. He'd heard her shout them down the length of the conference table during editorial meetings when someone disagreed with her. Apparently with her new position came a certain restraint, which he immediately made his personal goal to crack.
"You just can't stand it, can you?" she said, gloating smile in place. "Deal with it, Dawson. I'm above you now."
He shuddered. "God spare me an image of that."
Her eyes shot daggers, but she obviously had a speech prepared, and even his insulting wisecracks weren't going to rob her of the pleasure of delivering it. "I have editorial control now. Full editorial control. Which means that I have the authority to approve, amend, or decline any story ideas you submit. I also have the authority to assign you stories if you don't come up with your own. Which you haven't. Not for the two weeks since you've been back in the States."
"I've been using up accumulated vacation days. The time off was approved."
"By my predecessor."
"Before you took his place."
"I didn't take anything," she said tightly. "I earned this position."
Dawson raised one shoulder. "Whatever, Harriet."
But his indifference was phony. The recent corporate shakeup had measured a ten on the Richter scale of his professional future. He'd received an e-mail from a colleague before the official blanket notification went out to all NewsFront employees, and even the distance between Washington and Kabul hadn't been enough to buffer the bad news. A corporate asshole, somebody's nephew, who knew slim to none about news-magazine publishing, or news in general for that matter, had named Harriet Plummer as editor-in-chief, effective immediately.
She was a disastrous choice for the position, first because she was more corporate animal than journalist. On any given tough editorial call, her top priority would be to protect the magazine against possible lawsuits. Stories addressing controversial topics would be watered down or canned altogether. Which, in Dawson's opinion, amounted to editorial castration.
Secondly, she was a card-carrying ball breaker who had no leadership qualities. She harbored a scornful dislike for people in general, an even stronger antipathy toward the male of the species, and big-time loathing for Dawson Scott in particular. As humbly as possible, he recognized that her animosity was largely based on jealousy of his talent and the respect it had earned him among his colleagues at NewsFront and beyond.
But on the day she was appointed editor-in-chief, the source of her hostility had ceased to matter. It was there, it was robust, it was enduring, and she was now in charge. That sucked. Nothing could be worse.
Or so he'd thought.
She said, "I'm sending you to Idaho."
She pushed a file folder across the desk toward him. "Our researchers have done the heavy lifting for you. You can acquaint yourself with the program on the flight out there."
"Give me a hint."
"Some group of do-gooders started taking blind people up in hot-air balloons and showing them the ropes. So to speak."
The cheeky add-on didn't get a smile out of Dawson, who kept his expression impassive. Leaving the folder where it lay, he asked, "And this is hard news?"
She smiled sweetly. Or tried. On her face, coyness didn't quite work. "To the blind balloonists it is."
Her smugness made him want to vault the desk and wrap both hands around her neck. Instead, he mentally counted to ten and looked away from her, toward the windows. Four stories below, the broad avenues of Washington, DC, baked under a midday sun.
"Despite your belittling description of the program," he said, "I'm sure it's worthy of national notice."
"Yet I sense a marked lack of enthusiasm on your part."
"It's not my kind of story."
"You're not up to it?"
An invisible gauntlet landed on her desk alongside the untouched file. "I come up with my own stories, Harriet. You know that."
"So come up with one." She folded her arms over her wide bosom. "Let me see that reputed genius of yours at work. I want to witness in action the writer everyone knows and loves, who's hailed as always taking a fresh approach, who writes with rare insight, who lays bare for his readers the soul of the story." She gave it a count of five. "Well?"
With as much equanimity as possible, he unclenched his teeth and said, "I still have vacation days. At least a week's worth."
"You've had two weeks off already."
"Not long enough."
"I just returned from a war zone."
"No one forced you to stay over there. You could have come home at any time."
"There were too many good stories to tell."
"Whom do you think you're kidding?" she scoffed. "You wanted to dress up and play soldier, and you did. For three quarters of a year. On the magazine's nickel. If you hadn't come home on your own when you did, I, as incoming editor-in-chief, was going to haul your ass back."
"Careful, Harriet. Along with your dark roots, your envy is showing."
"Nothing you wrote was ever short-listed for a Pulitzer."
"But you've yet to be nominated for one, ergo you've never been awarded one, so big fucking deal about those rumors, which you probably started yourself. Now, I've got other things to do that are much more important." She arched a penciled eyebrow. "That is, unless you want to turn in your key to the men's restroom here and now, in which case I'm more than happy to call Bookkeeping and request your severance check."
She paused for several seconds, and when he didn't move, she continued. "No? Then your butt is in seat eighteen-A on a flight to Boise tomorrow morning." She slapped an airline ticket on top of the research folder. "Regional jet."
* * *
Dawson pulled to the curb in front of the neat Georgetown townhouse and cut his car's engine. Raising his hips, he fished a small bottle of pills from the pocket of his jeans, shook out a tablet, and swallowed it with a gulp from the bottle of water in the console cup holder. After recapping the pill bottle and returning it to his pocket, he flipped down the sun visor and checked his reflection in the mirror.
He did look like something a cat threw up. A very sick cat.
But there was nothing to be done about it. He'd been sorting through all the mail that had piled up on his desk, when he got Headly's text: Get over here. Now. Headly wasn't that imperative unless something was up.
Dawson had left the remainder of his mail unopened, and here he was.
He got out and made his way up the flower-lined brick walk. Eva Headly answered the doorbell. "Hello, gorgeous." He reached across the threshold and pulled her into a hug.
A former Miss North Carolina, Eva Headly had aged admirably well. Now in her early sixties, she retained not only her beauty and shapeliness but also her dry wit and natural charm. She hugged him back, hard, then squirmed out of the embrace and slapped him none too gently on the shoulder.
"Don't 'gorgeous' me," she said, rounding off the r to sound soft. "I'm mad at you. It's been two weeks since you got back. Why are you just now getting around to seeing us?" Her expression was laced with concern as she took him in from head to toe. "You're as thin as a rail. Didn't they feed you over there?"
"Nothing like your Brunswick stew. And they've never heard of banana pudding."
She motioned him into the foyer, saying, "That's what I missed most while you were gone."
"What?" he asked.
He grinned, cupped her face between his hands, and kissed her on the forehead. "I missed you, too." Then he released her and tilted his head in the direction of the den. Lowering his voice, he asked, "Is he getting used to the idea yet?"
She matched his confidential tone. "Not even close. He's been—"
"I can hear the two of you whispering, you know. I'm not deaf." The gruff shout came from the den.
Eva mouthed, "Be afraid."
Dawson winked at her, then walked down the hallway in the direction of the den, where Gary Headly was waiting for him. When Dawson stepped into the familiar room, he felt an achy tug of nostalgia. Countless memories had been made here. He'd raced his Matchbox cars on the parquet floor, his mother warning him not to leave them for someone to trip over. His dad and Headly had patiently taught him how to play chess with the set on the table in the corner. Sitting with him on the sofa, Eva had coached him on how to win the attention of his sixth-grade crush. For the first time since leaving Afghanistan, he felt like he'd arrived home.
The Headlys were his godparents and had forged a bond with him on the day he was christened. They'd taken to heart their pledge to assume guardianship of their best friends' son should the need ever arise. When his mom and dad were killed together in an auto accident while he was in college, even though he was legally an adult, his relationship with the Headlys had taken on even greater significance.
Headly was wearing a parental scowl of disapproval as he took in Dawson's appearance. He was considerably shorter than Dawson's six feet four inches, but he exuded confidence and authority. He still had all his hair, which was barely threaded with strands of gray. A daily three-mile run and Eva's careful supervision of his diet had kept him trim. Most sixty-five-year-old men would covet the figure he cut.
He said, "By the looks of you, it was a tough war."
"You could say," Dawson replied. "I just had a skirmish with Harriet and barely survived it."
As Dawson took the offered seat, Headly said, "I was referring to Afghanistan."
"It was tough, yeah, but Harriet makes the Taliban look like pranksters."
"How about a drink?"
Dawson covered his slight hesitation by consulting his wristwatch. "It's a little early."
"Five o'clock somewhere. And anyway, this is a special occasion. The prodigal has returned."
Dawson caught the slight rebuke. "Sorry I haven't gotten over here sooner. I've had a lot to catch up on. Still do. But your text had a ring of urgency."
"Did it?" At the built-in bar, Headly poured shots of bourbon into two glasses. He handed one of them to Dawson, then sat down facing him. He raised his glass in a toast before sipping from it. "I'm drinking more these days."
"It's good for you."
"So they say."
"Maybe," Headly mumbled. "At least it gives me something to look forward to each day."
"You've got plenty to look forward to."
"Yeah. Old age and dying."
"Better not let Eva hear you talking like that."
Headly grumbled something unintelligible into his tumbler as he took another sip.
Dawson said, "Don't be so negative. Give yourself time to adjust. It's been less than a month."
"And counting, obviously." Dawson sipped the liquor. He wanted to chug it.
"Hard to come to a dead stop after being in the Bureau all of my adult life."
Nodding sympathetically, Dawson felt the warmth of the bourbon curling through his gut, settling his nerves, which the pill hadn't yet had time to do. "Your retirement doesn't become official until… when?"
"Four more weeks."
"You had that much vacation time saved up?"
"Yep. And I'd have just as soon sacrificed it and stayed on the job for as long as possible."
"Use this time as a period of adjustment between your demanding career and a life of leisure."
"Leisure," he said morosely. "Soon as my retirement is official, Eva's got us booked on a two-week cruise. Alaska."
"I'd rather someone pull out my fingernails with pliers."
"It won't be that bad."
"Easy to say when you don't have to go. Eva's ordered me a prescription of Viagra to take along."
"Hmm. She wants you to make up for all the nights you couldn't come home?"
"Something like that."
"What's the downside? Knock yourself out." Dawson raised his glass.
Headly acknowledged the toast and, after a moment, asked, "So, how'd it go with Dragon Lady?"
Dawson told him about the meeting and the story Harriet had assigned him.
Headly leaned against the back cushion of his chair and studied him for an uncomfortable length of time.
Irritated by the scrutiny, Dawson said, "What? You got a comment about my hair, too?"
"I'm more concerned about what's going on inside your head than what's growing out of it. What's the matter with you?"
Headly just looked at him, not having to say anything.
- "DEADLINE is both a breathtaking and heartbreaking story; one that will stay with the reader long after the book is finished."—freshfiction.com
- "...deft characterizations and eye for detail make this a winner...Satisfying, vintage Brown storytelling."—Kirkus on DEADLINE
- "Sandra Brown meticulously develops a stellar cast of characters, weaving them into a tense, gritty thriller that offers numerous plot twists leading to stunning revelations and a nail-biting conclusion....I'm now wondering why I waited so long to enjoy this talented author's work. I highly recommend Brown's Low Pressure. Its multilayered, intricate and suspenseful storyline is enriched with vivid descriptions and crisp dialogue. If you enjoy romantic suspense, Low Pressure is a book you'll want to read in one sitting."—USA Today on LOW PRESSURE
- "A good old-fashioned thriller, and a winner..."—Kirkus on LOW PRESSURE
- "Sexual tension fueled by mistrust between brash Denton and shy Bellamy smolders and sparks in teasing fashion throughout."—Publishers Weekly on LOW PRESSURE
- "Hair-raising . . . a perfect mix of thriller and romantic suspense."—USA Today on LETHAL
- "Pulse-pounding . . . a relentless pace and clever plot."—Publishers Weekly (starred review) on LETHAL
- "Fast paced and full of surprises, this taut thriller...features a large cast of superbly drawn characters and the perfect amounts of realistic dialog and descriptive prose. "—Library Journal (starred review) on LETHAL
- On Sale
- Jan 28, 2014
- Page Count
- 416 pages
- Grand Central Publishing