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Excerpt - Critical Impact by Linda Hall

Critical Impact
by
Linda Hall


The bomb wasn't supposed to be real. But the mock-disaster explosion to test emergency procedures killed two people in a small Maine town. And all evidence points to shy makeup artist Anna Barker as the prime suspect. When Deputy Sheriff Stu McCabe is assigned to investigate the case, Anna hopes he'll prove her innocent. But with a harrowing past of his own, Stu seems to trust no one. Something that might save both their lives when the real killer plans to make critical impact—again.

Excerpt of chapter one:

When Anna Barker reached out to open the heavy wooden door of City Hall, she was hurled backward in a blinding flash and a crush of ear-rupturing noise.

It happened fast. One second she was carrying her grande latte, her large stage makeup bag and several books of photographs, and trying to avoid the leering glances of the mayor, the next she was flattened on the ground beside the building, nose pressed into the grass.

She lay there, stunned. She didn't move, couldn't. At first nothing hurt. And then everything did. Her left arm was sprawled next to her body and her other hand was up next to her face. She felt a burning on her neck and shoulders. She raised her hand to check the liquid. Blood? No. Hot coffee. She could tell by the smell of it. She had spilled her coffee.

A spasm of coughs rattled her chest. She spat out some dirt. That small exertion sent coils of pain through her core. She took tiny breaths—deep ones hurt—and tried to steady herself. Everything around her was noiseless, still and surreal. It was like she had been cast into some deep, suffocating cave. She opened her eyes and was filled with a horrid sense of terror. She couldn't hear herself cough. She felt, but didn't hear, the groans that welled up from inside her. She blinked and the movement hurt. She was confused. Where was she? What had just happened?

Gingerly, she tried to take stock of her surroundings. She was lying on a patch of lawn in front of the City Hall building in Shawnigan, Maine. Anna's brain told her to rise, to get up, to run, but the rest of her body would not respond.

She tried to remember. First, she had been walking up toward City Hall, then the mayor had come, accosted her and finally gone in ahead of her. Next thing she knew there had been that thunderous sound and bursting light. And she had ended up here. Could it have been the bomb? It had to be the bomb. But no, the bomb for the mock disaster wasn't scheduled until tomorrow. And it wasn't going to be a real bomb, anyway. Just smoke and noise. A simulation.

Maybe something about the bomb had gone terribly wrong.

Her throat was raw and she forced herself to move her head, cast a backward glance toward the building she had almost entered. All she saw was bricks, gray stones and rubble. Where was Mayor Johnny Seeley? He'd been just ahead of her. And earlier two of her esthetics students, Hilary and Claire, had gone inside. She had come early to talk with Hilary. Were they somewhere in all that rubble? Were they okay?

Her eyes felt scratchy. Why was everything blurry? She guessed that her contact lenses must have come out in the blast. She raised her head.

People were running toward her, climbing over shattered pieces of the fountain that used to be in front of City Hall. Splashing through the water that gushed from its broken facade. Through hazy eyes she saw the lights of police cars. She shifted her gaze and saw the back of a broad-shouldered man in a red shirt leaning over and gesturing to a woman. Her hand was raised and she appeared to be holding something. Were they looking at her? She wished she could see better.

Was that…? No. It couldn't be! Was it Peter? Had he followed her to Maine? No! She squinted and tried to clear her gritty vision. She turned away, lest he see her, come for her…

She needed to get up, scramble away from this place. Away from him. But she couldn't move her body.

Help me! God, help me!

In the opposite direction from where Peter was, she saw a man running toward her, his hands cupped around his mouth. He was calling to her, but she couldn't hear a thing.

She looked up in time to see a wall of stone plummet toward her, gray rocks tumbling into each other as they fell, surrounding her, entombing her.

Stu McCabe had been standing beside the hospital auxiliary tent and squirting a line of mustard on his free hot dog when he heard the explosion. Ahead of him, he watched in horror as the entire front of City Hall seemed to fold in on itself.

An earthquake? No. He would have felt an earthquake. People were screaming now and running in all directions. He ran toward the building because he had seen a woman fall. He needed to get to her!

Anna regained consciousness slowly. When she finally did, all she felt was pain. It seared white-hot down her arm and it intensified in her wrist. She was lying flat, the right side of her face pressed against something hard and jagged. Her right arm was pinned.

She groaned, heard nothing but the pounding of her heart and a roaring in her ears. When she opened her eyes, she saw only blurred darkness. She tried to move her head a bit to see where she was, but she trembled with pain, and shook with cold and shock.

She knew she was under rocks and debris, yet somehow, the cascading stones hadn't crushed her. Her torso was being protected by something flat and square. A door? Maybe. She worried that if she moved, even slightly, it would come down and crush her completely. Already she was finding it difficult to breathe. She had to concentrate. Breathe in. Breathe out. In. Out.

She closed her eyes against the pain and inhaled the acrid smell of fire and sulfur. She coughed, and each raspy cough sent hot pain into her chest and across her arm and into her wrist. She felt pain right down to the tips of her fingers. She tried making any small sound she could, but didn't know if she was heard by anyone. She heard only the roaring in her ears.

The thought came to her that she might actually die in here. This was what it was like to be buried alive. She coughed again and finally she prayed.

God, help me to get out of here, but if not, help me not to be afraid.

She prayed this over and over and over. Slowly, she realized that despite everything, she was somehow still breathing. Clean air was getting to her from somewhere. She felt a tiny waft of cool air on the very top of her head. With great effort she moved her eyes to where she could almost see the pinhole between the rocks and rubble. It might be enough to survive. She tried to ignore the grinding pain in her right arm as she turned her face, moved it toward that gap in the rubble and gulped in pure air.

Quietly, she began to sing the new hymn she had learned last week in church about God's protection.

She sensed movement above her and prayed that whatever it was it wouldn't send the piece of flat rock into her chest.

Time passed, but she couldn't tell how much. She kept breathing, and kept thanking God for the gift of air. She drifted in and out of consciousness.

She came awake again when she felt a warm touch on the fingers of her left hand. She opened her eyes and stared up into the face of a man. He was talking to her, but she couldn't hear him. She closed her eyes.

Slowly, one by one, pieces of rock and debris were moved away from her head and then her body. The pain was unbearable when they moved the slab away from her wrist. Tears filled her eyes. She moaned and she blacked out again from the pain.

Every once in a while she would open her eyes. And when she did, she looked up into the man's face. His smile gave her hope.

The trapped woman looked so helpless. When all of the rubble had been painstakingly removed piece by piece, he gently reached down and cupped his hands around her dusty head.

He recognized her. He didn't know her, had never officially met her, but she'd been to some of the planning meetings. If he was not mistaken, she was the one in charge of making the victims of the mock disaster look as real as possible. He winced when one of the EMTs moved the piece of cement from on top of her right hand. It looked crushed. No wonder she was drifting in and out of consciousness with the pain.

Two EMTs placed the stretcher as close as they could to her twisted form. The main thing was to keep her back and neck immobilized. Her eyes were closed, but she was saying something. He bent his head close to her face.

"Yes?" he said.

She wasn't talking. She was humming something.

"You're going to be all right," he told her as he smoothed bits of dust and debris from her hair.

She opened her eyes and looked up at him. He couldn't help himself. He smiled down at her. As they carried her stretcher past the crowds of people who were beginning to mill about, he kept his eyes on her face. And as he did so, he thought about another woman, a woman he was not able to save from another bomb in another time and place.

He vowed that this time would be different.

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Comments

  1. Has anyone read this book? I want to know.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Haven't read this one yet but I've read other's of Linda Hall's and can certainly recommend her writing.

    ReplyDelete

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