Special Forces soldier and medic Walter River would give anything to snatch more than a few seconds of down time to see if he can rattle the no-nonsense and incredibly hot Dr. Lloyd he's protecting, but dodging explosions, snipers, and student radicals who've unleashed a lethal bio-engineered microorganism have made that almost impossible. Maybe he'll get a chance-if he can figure out how to keep them both alive.
CDC microbiologist Ava Lloyd races to find a cure for a bio-terrorism organism sweeping El Paso. The few stolen moments with her very hunky bodyguard River have been explosive, but no matter how alluring he is, she can't afford to get distracted. The clock is ticking, people are dying by the hundreds, and once this crisis is solved, they'll both be off on their next assignment, thousands of miles apart.
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Outbreak Task Force Book One
By Julie Rowe, Robin Haseltine
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2017 Julie Rowe
All rights reserved.
5:05 p.m. March 27th
"The only soldier who doesn't carry survival equipment is a dead soldier," Special Forces medic Walter River said to his audience, a room full of men and women in camo. Too full. Fuck the chairs, there wasn't enough floor space left for someone to squat.
The heat inside the room intensified the illusion of claustrophobia and coated his tongue in an acid so corrosive it stabbed at his gag reflex. He fought the pull of his mind as it tried to take him back to another time and place, when heat had rolled across him in waves, and death hung in the air — a moment when his body had known only confused pain, jumbled memory, and bitter betrayal.
Nope, not going back there.
"What do you carry that will keep you alive?" River forced himself to ask his workshop participants.
Several put up their hands and offered the obvious: compass, knife, matches. He was about to ask them to think with their hindbrain, the hypothalamus — also known as the holy shit I'm going to die neural structure — when there was a sharp rap on the door. A young soldier saluted and informed him the base commander wanted to see River in his office.
He glanced at his group. "Put together a complete list before I come back."
When River entered Major Ramsey's office, the officer held out the phone without saying a word.
"Hello," River said into the receiver, frowning.
"Sergeant River, my name is Dr. Rodrigues. I'm with the CDC. You were recommended to me by Colonel Maximillian from the Army's Biological Response Team. I need you on the ground at the University Medical Center of El Paso to assist in a medical emergency."
What the fuck did that mean?
He glanced at the base commander. The man thrust his chin at the door, which meant there was only one thing River could say.
"Transport is being arranged. I'll meet you outside the emergency entrance." She hung up.
"I'm on loan?" River asked the major.
"Take your weapon." It was an order.
Well, shit. He was back in the game.
River was dropped off at the ER entrance for the medical center fifteen minutes later. He didn't have to wait long for a petite older woman, her gray hair pulled back into a bun, striding toward him. "Sergeant River?"
"River is fine, ma'am. Dr. Rodrigues?"
"Yes. Put this on." She handed him a respirator, the kind people wore in zombie apocalypse movies. Not a good sign.
"Could you wait here for a few minutes?" She sighed, just like his mother would have prior to delivering a lecture on male brains and their lack of common sense. "I have a situation to deal with before I fill you in on everything."
She was gone before he got the word out.
He stood there and took in his surroundings. There were three ambulances in front of the entrance already, and the approaching sound of sirens made it clear there was about to be another one.
Five minutes later, another ambulance showed up. A few minutes after that, yet another rolled in, but there was no one left to receive the patient.
Enough standing around. River abandoned his watch position in favor of wading into the fray.
He stepped up to the rear doors of the newly-arrived ambulance, threw them open, and grabbed hold of the end of the gurney inside. He paused, waiting for the paramedic riding in the back to do his bit, but those seconds were more than enough time for the condition of the interior to register.
Holy fuck. The ambulance was splattered with blood, and God only knew what other body fluids. Supplies littered the floor, making it look like a fight had broken out inside the vehicle.
Only there weren't any green rage monsters or kung-fu movie extras to explain the chaos. Just the paramedic and a patient lying unmoving on a gurney.
River waited while the paramedic got to his feet and ensured all the IV lines were untangled before pushing the gurney out. With the majority of his face covered by an air-purifying respirator almost identical to the one River wore, it was hard to tell how the guy felt about the condition of his patient, the situation, or even of his vehicle.
Concern, fear, embarrassment?
Six years in the Special Forces had taught him to compartmentalize emotions and events and his responses to them. The shit going down today had him hanging on to his training by the ends of his fingertips. A cold, painful lump crouched underneath his sternum. Not fear or panic, but close. Alien and unwelcome.
River held his end up as the rolling bed cleared the bumper and its retractable legs stretched toward the ground.
The paramedic gave River's Army uniform a measuring glance. "You work here?"
"No, just got here to help about ten minutes ago." River jerked his head in the direction of the emergency entrance to the University Medical Center of El Paso. "There are nurses inside."
"Thanks." The paramedic pushed his patient toward the wide doors.
Behind the guy's ambulance, another rolled in. That would make a total of six since River arrived.
The pit of his gut wound tighter and tighter until he wasn't sure he could even swallow.
He'd seen this movie — one of those medical thrillers where everyone dies — but he never thought he'd be in the middle of one. Again.
Someone called his name.
He looked away from the ambulances to find his new boss of ten minutes waving at him to join her. Next to her stood a man in a dark suit and a respirator of the same type as his own.
Dr. Rodrigues led the way to a spot where they were out of the way but could observe the foot traffic going in and out of the ER doors.
"Ma'am," River said respectfully. "How can I help?" He nodded at the other man.
"This is Agent John Dozer from Homeland Security. He's their lead agent here."
"I'd shake your hand, Sergeant," Dozer said, "but personal contact of any kind is now prohibited." He tilted his head toward the doctor.
So, even Homeland Security had to listen to her. Good to know.
"I asked for you because you've dealt with outbreak conditions before, yes?" she asked River.
"Middle Eastern refugee camp. Last year." Just thinking about it gave him a headache. He'd been shot and kicked in the head by someone he'd trusted. His injuries had cost him more than nearly a day's worth of memories; they'd cost him the unconscious trust a soldier needed to have in his brothers-in-arms. "Some asshole terrorist decided to test his homemade super rabies on several thousand old men, women, and children. A lot of them died."
He studied the doctor, but aside from the deepening of the angry lines bracketing her face, she didn't react. What was he missing?
A glance at the agent provided no more information.
Two more ambulances pulled up, their lights flashing.
A lot of people were getting sick fast. The situation had too much in common with the one he'd been in before, but with one big difference.
This wasn't the Middle East; this was El Paso, Texas, USA.
He took another look at the doctor. Despite the particle mask respirator she wore over her face, she looked as if she was ready to strangle someone to death with her bare hands. "You think this is manmade?" "Man-made," she agreed, nearly biting off the end of the word.
Now he understood why he was here, when he should have been back on base teaching his class on surviving with minimal equipment.
He was going to get to go asshole hunting.
"At least you've some experience with outbreak conditions," she continued. "Most of the law-enforcement people here have never seen anything like it. They may balk at some of the measures that need to be taken."
She didn't sound happy about it. Nope, Dr. Rodrigues appeared to have about as much patience for bullshit as he did. A characteristic he appreciated in a commander, supervisor, or whatever the hell title she wore.
"I'll be vocal with my support of those measures, then. The punishment for ignoring an expert in this sort of thing is usually lethal." He gave her a respectful nod. "Orders?"
"I'm expecting assistance to arrive from the National Guard in a couple of hours, but until they get here, we're stretched thin. Most of my people are either treating the infected, working on identifying the pathogen, or preparing to decontaminate a list of possible infected places. The infection seems heaviest at the university. But, I've sent in an investigator to collect samples at a coffee shop that may be at the center of this outbreak. The earliest infections appear to be concentrated in that location. I'd like you to keep an eye on her and assist, if she needs it."
"At the site?"
"Please. While Dr. Lloyd is an excellent medical investigator, she's at the location alone and isn't familiar working with local law enforcement. I'd like to avoid any conflict."
Conflict associated with scientists usually meant a lack of communication.
"Is she the absentminded professor sort or more of a you're too stupid to understand type?"
Rodrigues tilted her head to one side, giving his question surprisingly serious consideration. "She's more of a no patience for idiots person. She works fine with anyone who behaves like they have half a brain." She sighed. "Unfortunately, there are far too many people in positions of authority who are lucky if they have more than two brain cells to rub together."
River snorted a laugh. "That I can work with."
"I'll get you set up with our Emergency Crisis Communication system, ECC. It's a Bluetooth cell phone on steroids. We have our own mobile satellite uplink and broadcasting tower. Your earpiece also has a camera and a tiny screen. When it's turned on, you can either see who you're talking to or see what they see." She pointed at her ear.
The device looked very much like a Bluetooth cell phone, only slightly larger, with a screen attached to a short arm positioned just outside of the line of sight.
"You'll have to wear a hazmat suit."
"Why?" He pointed at his respirator. "I thought this was good enough."
"Here, it is, but we don't know how the pathogen was initially introduced. I'm inclined to err on the side of safety."
"I'll give you a ride," Dozer said. "I've got people headed there, too." He motioned toward a black SUV parked outside the ER entrance.
He stopped to look back. "Ma'am?"
"Take your rifle."
He'd only ever seen eyes that grim in combat.
* * *
The hole-in-the-wall café in front of microbiologist Ava Lloyd looked so ordinary, except for the overturned chairs, puddles of spilled coffee on the cement, and yellow police and biohazard tape surrounding the outdoor courtyard serving the café.
Safety and biohazard protocols had been followed and security measures taken. It was time to get to work.
Ava let out a deep breath and strode forward to duck under the tape. The hazmat suit she wore made it awkward. The crowd of Emergency Services personnel standing at either end of the courtyard, watching as if it were reality TV, made her feel like a hippopotamus trying to tap dance.
Dancing had never been one of her strengths.
Reading was. She'd read the case file for this incident in under ten minutes, thirty minutes ago, and her breathing still hadn't returned to normal.
The shop had opened at six o'clock, serving early risers both coffee and breakfast on the go. At eleven in the morning, a half dozen people, mostly students from the University of El Paso, had stumbled into the University Medical Center's ER within fifteen minutes of each other, with the same symptoms. High fever, headache, and confusion. Those symptoms grew rapidly worse. Two of the students were dead by two in the afternoon.
In the three hours since the first patient had entered the ER and the first death, another thirty people had either arrived at the UMC's ER on their own or had been transported there by ambulance, all with high fevers and headaches. For some, the confusion became paranoid hallucinations, and they had to be restrained.
The hospital called the Center for Disease Control. The CDC sent an investigative team to determine the cause and epicenter for the outbreak, and patient zero.
Ava was part of a twelve-person team responsible for determining if there was, in fact, an outbreak, what caused it, and a treatment regimen. Within an hour, her team leader, Dr. Rodrigues, had determined there was an outbreak of some kind and called for additional help, but not enough of it had arrived yet.
It wasn't until the three staff members at the café had collapsed, two with blood coming out of their noses and ears, that the team suspected where the outbreak started. The identity of patient zero, the person who'd brought the disease to the coffee shop as a carrier, or as its first victim, was yet to be determined. There were now too many patients to deal with. This was the best place to start investigating.
Ava expected the café to be disorganized and dirty. Yet, if she ignored the overturned chairs and coffee spilled as panic had taken hold of the customers when the police arrived, it appeared clean and orderly.
The bodies of the two dead university students in the hospital morgue begged to differ.
Ava had been tapped for the job of collecting samples from the restaurant, while the rest of the team continued to deal with the hospitalized victims and identifying the pathogen.
The fatality count wasn't going to stay at two for long.
The area was eerily quiet, and combined with the knowledge that every move she made was being monitored by her CDC boss, the local police, the FBI, and Homeland Security, she found herself shaking harder than a leaf on a tree during a hurricane.
Get it together, idiot. You're on camera.
Dr. Rodrigues spoke calmly despite the view she had via the tiny webcam on the Bluetooth receiver hugging Ava's ear. "Ensure you swab all the tables, as well as all the work surfaces inside the café."
"Yes, ma'am," Ava replied as she adjusted the gloves of her hazmat suit one last time.
"A helicopter will be waiting to take your samples when you're done. Until we know what this is and how it's spread, treat this as a level four pathogen. All decontamination procedures must be strictly enforced."
Fantastic. The first pathogen she got to investigate as a CDC employee showed Anthrax-level lethality.
No pressure there.
"I'm keeping this call open in case you need support," Dr. Rodrigues added.
"Thank you, ma'am," Ava replied, keeping her tone neutral.
Collecting samples wasn't a technically difficult job — she'd been in weirder places and had sampled odder things — she'd just never done it with so many people watching her and evaluating every move she made.
Ava approached the first table and proceeded to swab its surface, then moved on to the next table and the next, working from the outside of the presumed infection zone inward. She'd collected just over twenty samples and was about to enter the work area of the café, when in the corner of her eye, movement caught her attention.
A young man stumbled and weaved toward the café's order counter. Blond, clean cut, and no older than twenty, he was dressed in jeans and a hoodie and had a backpack hanging heavy on his back. Just like every other student at the university.
How the hell had he gotten past the police? No one should be anywhere near this place without wearing a hazmat suit. It was extremely unsafe.
She walked toward the counter, her mouth open to demand he leave at once, but the dazed, blank look on his face stopped her from saying anything. That, and the beads of sweat clinging to his forehead.
Shit. Could he be another ambulatory victim of the pathogen?
"Are you all right?" she asked him very carefully instead.
He blinked, then finally seemed to focus on her as a trickle of perspiration ran down the side of his face.
The temperature was moderate, certainly not high enough to make anyone sweat.
Oh yeah, he had whatever was killing people. Where the heck had he come from? Had he passed out in some corner or closet and just woken up?
"I'm here to deliver a message to the United States government and its citizens," he intoned, as if he were the voice of doom. He lifted his hand into the air, showing off the cell phone in his hand as if it were a detonator.
Maybe it was. The air in her chest froze solid, then broke up into ragged shards, piercing her insides with every breath.
"Something tells me," Ava said quietly, "his backpack isn't full of textbooks."
"Shit." Dr. Rodrigues's horrified voice whispered into her ear.
"Not helpful," she whispered back.
"Our leaders are corrupt," he continued, weaving on his feet, turning in a circle as if expecting a crowd of people was surrounding him. "Responsible for the deaths of thousands of women and ch ... children."
Excerpted from Viable Threat by Julie Rowe, Robin Haseltine. Copyright © 2017 Julie Rowe. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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