The Scorpion's Tail Page 1

Author: Douglas Preston

Series: Nora Kelly #2

Genres: Mystery , Thriller


SINCE GRADUATING FROM the Academy eight months before, Special Agent Corrie Swanson had learned to expect almost anything. Nevertheless, she hadn’t expected to be serving warrants on bawling teenagers. As she rode back through the mountains with the rest of the FBI team, she felt relieved that a difficult day was almost over.

They were returning from the town of Edgewood, having served the warrant on a pimply-faced hacker who, when he answered the door of his mother’s house, had broken down in tears at the sight of them. Corrie felt bad for the kid, and then felt bad for feeling bad—because, after all, he’d hacked into a classified network at Los Alamos National Laboratory “just for fun.” Now his computers, external hard drives, iPhone, USB sticks, PlayStation, and even home security system were all loaded into the black Navigator with tinted windows that was following their vehicle with Agent Liz Khoury at the wheel and Agent Harry Martinez riding shotgun.

Corrie sat next to her boss, Supervisory Special Agent Hale Morwood, who was driving the least likely G-ride Corrie had ever seen: a late-model Nissan pickup, loaded, in candy-apple red with racing stripes and a Chinese dragon decal running diagonally across the hood. It was totally unlike Morwood’s dry personality. When Corrie had finally screwed up the courage to ask her boss why he drove it, his response had been “I travel incognito.”

“So,” Morwood said, shifting into his mentoring voice. “Enough excitement for you today?”

Difficult or not, Corrie knew that the day had been a reward of sorts. She’d put in more than her share of desk duty, worked hard to impress Morwood, and even managed to play a major role in a recent case. To Morwood, no doubt this was the equivalent of a field trip.

Still, she knew he wouldn’t like a display of gratitude. “I felt a little silly,” she said, “wearing a bulletproof vest on a call like that.”

“You never know. Instead of just yelling, that mother might have pulled out a .357 Magnum.”

“What are they going to do with all that computer equipment?”

“The lab will look at it, find out exactly what he did and how, and then we’ll go back and arrest him—and his life will be over.”

Corrie swallowed.

“Seems harsh to you?”

“He didn’t fit my idea of a criminal, to be honest.”

“Me neither. Smart kid, stable middle-class home, straight-A student, promising future. That in a way makes it worse than, say, some kid who grows up in the inner city and starts dealing drugs because it’s all he knows. Our boy is eighteen, he’s an adult, and he broke into a system that holds classified nuclear bomb information.”

“I get it, totally.”

After a moment Morwood said: “It’s good to have compassion. That’s something a lot of agents lose over time. But balance it with a sense of justice. He’s going to get a fair trial in front of twelve ordinary, commonsense Americans. That’s how it works—and it’s a beautiful system.”

Corrie nodded. Morwood was a twenty-year agent, and his lack of cynicism continually surprised her. Maybe that’s why he’d been tapped to mentor new agents during their two-year probationary period. So many of her fellow rookies—most of the guys, some of the women—were already trying on a tough, cynical, hard-boiled macho persona.

They were passing through the town of Tijeras, on old Route 66, when Morwood reached down and turned up the volume on the police scanner, which had been murmuring in the background. Domestic, Cedro Peak Campground, report of shots fired...

Corrie brought her wandering thoughts to attention.

Reports indicate a domestic dispute and shots fired in a camper, possible shooting victim, possible hostage situation. Location Cedro Peak Campground, New Mexico 252, Sabino Canyon turnoff...

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Morwood, fiddling with his navigation program, “that’s just around the corner. Looks like this is one for us.” He pulled down his mic. “Special Agents Morwood and Swanson, Khoury and Martinez responding. We’re passing through Tijeras on Route Six-Six, turning onto New Mexico Three-Three-Seven south. Ten minutes out.”

Morwood accelerated, talking to the dispatcher and the agents in the following car. The tires squealed as he took the turn from Route 66 onto 337, heading into the foothills of the Sandia Mountains. As he did so, he reached for the dash, hitting the siren and activating the hideaway lights. The SUV followed suit.

The dispatcher relayed all the information she had, which was precious little. Essentially, others in the campground had called 911, reporting an incident in a pop-up camper—a loud argument, a woman screaming, shots fired. One said he thought he heard a little girl crying as well. Naturally, everyone in the campground had gotten the hell out.

“Looks like we’re going to get some real action, not just a crybaby hacker,” Morwood said. “We’re the first responders. Check your weapon.”

Corrie felt her heart accelerate. She removed her Glock 19M from the underarm holster, popped out the magazine, checked it, then reinserted and reholstered. Per standard procedure there was already a round in the chamber. She was glad to still be wearing the bulletproof vest.

“Domestics,” said Morwood, switching again into mentoring mode, “as you probably learned at the Academy, can be the most dangerous of calls. The perp can be irrational, agitated, and often suicidal.”