Demons Among Us
Her fiancé battles terrorists…
He's one of America’s elite…
Marrying him is a risk – suppose he doesn’t come home?
Alex, now living in Virginia and working in Washington, DC
for the Institute of Medicine, is recalled to the Big Easy to investigate a
series of hospital crimes where she reconnects with her ex-husband Robert, the calm, steady surgeon.
She realizes she misses him desperately as guilt consumes her…
A series of emergency calls, one from the hospital, another from her home,
Twist her heart and her…
What will she do? She’s being pulled in so many directions…
Evil dissects her brain as fear consumes her soul…
Will she, can she do the right thing?
You’ll love this psychological thriller… the circumstances are life and death, and convey a level of urgency unlike any other Alex has faced before.
She needs your help.
Dr. Judith Lucci has ridden camels in Egypt, taught health care on three continents, consulted with Congress on health policy, cared for patients in third world countries and saved thousands of lives.
Random acts or research?
Release date: April 26, 2020
Publisher: Bluestone Valley Publishing
Print pages: 257
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Demons Among Us
HE was a dark figure, his head tucked to his neck, skittered down the hall away from the intensive care unit. Clad in green scrubs and a dark hoodie it was difficult to distinguish whether the figure was male or female. HE grabbed his backpack and dashed into the stairwell at the same time the overhead alert system sounded a Code Blue. He sighed with anticipation as he heard the rapid response team on the floor below him rushing toward the unit.
He slid down the back of the wall and sat in the stairway mesmerized and consumed by his deed, a satisfied smile on his face. His heart rate picked up in anticipation of what he’d enjoy in the next few minutes. He enjoyed the sounds of a rescue effort that would never succeed. No one could survive the dose of epinephrine he’d given the patient. Visual images of the “rescue” flittered through his mind. He imagined the IV bags, empty packages of medical supplies, syringes, bloodied gauze, and medical paraphernalia that surrounded the bed and littered the floor. He could hear a pin drop as the highly skilled, competent practitioners at Crescent City Medical Center surrounded the bed, pressed shoulder to shoulder. He could imagine sighs of frustration, angry grunts and groans of disappointment as staff did their best to save a life He’d decided to end. And He was qualified to make that decision because of who He was and what He knew. He knew most things in the universe.
He sighed contently as he imagined the chaotic scene in bed three of the ICU. He wished he could be there to savor the experience first-hand. He wanted to see the dark, powerless faces of the physicians and nurses who tried hard to save a useless life. Maybe I can be there. His eyes opened and lit up as he considered a way to do that. His brain raced with possibilities and anticipation rushed up his spine. Perhaps he could figure out a way he could see the Code team try to save his selected victim. Wouldn’t that be a hoot? He smiled to himself. He’d have to think about that.
His thinking was energized by the sounds above. He knew staff held less and less hope that the patient, a young woman in her thirties, would survive. He could almost feel their despair.
A flash raced through his brain and almost blinded him. He had an idea. He smiled to himself as his pupils dilated with contentment. He bent his knees against his chest as visual images of what had occurred above enticed his brain.
He knew how to do it! He knew how to “watch” his people die. He’d figured out how to savor every moment of his planning forever.
Alexandra Lee Destephano smiled as she watched the video her grandmother had sent her of AJ. Her baby was now over six months old and doing something different every day. She smiled as she watched her grandmother, Kathryn Lee, hold the baby up in the air and pretend to drop him. AJ squealed with delight. He was the most amazing and wonderful creation imaginable. She couldn’t believe she’d made a part of him and brought him into this world. He was perfect and the best baby ever. Guilt swept through her as she replayed the video clip on her phone. I can't believe I've taken this job and left him three days a week. She berated herself for returning to work and leaving baby AJ at Wyndley Farm every week. Alex worked through her guilt and consoled herself. After all, AJ couldn't be in better hands. Between her grandmother, Nanny Alia and Mary Stildove, AJ had plenty of people to love and cuddle him. She had a serious case of ‘Mom’s Guilt” and it tortured her at times.
Why did she still want a professional life when she had an amazing baby and enough money? What was it about her that made her want to work outside of her home? Especially since she’d found the man of her dreams. The love of her life, Jacob Stark, was on a black ops mission in Syria with Digger Stildove. Their wedding was planned for mid-May of this year.
Alex lay her head against the back of her office chair and looked out of the window. She could see the Washington Monument in the distance. Is that snow? She rose from her desk and immediately noticed foot pain from her three-inch high heels. It had been almost a year since she had worked full-time in New Orleans, and she’d worn high heels every day. She was surprised at how hard it was to get back in the habit. As legal counsel for Crescent City Medical Center, she’d overseen malpractice issues, patient safety, and set staff and professional policy at the largest medical Center in Louisiana. She’d also almost lost her life there a couple of times. Last summer she’d returned home to Wyndley Farm, her grandparents’ Virginia estate and childhood home to await the birth of her baby. After AJ’s birth she'd decided to stay in Virginia. She’d resigned from her position in New Orleans much to the disappointment of her many friends in the Big Easy.
Alex gritted her teeth and walked over to her window. Yes, it was snowing. Already the National Mall was covered. For a moment she was afraid bad weather would keep her from getting home to Wyndley tomorrow night. She couldn't stand being away from AJ any longer than three days.
Alex’s grandmother had quickly recognized that Alex missed her professional life and practicing law. Kathryn had related this to her husband, and Alex’s grandfather, Congressman Adam Patrick Lee. As one would imagine, Adam Lee, the longest serving Congressman in Washington DC, had talked to a few friends and found Alex the perfect part-time job.
Alex now worked as a legal analyst in the department of Health Care Quality. A huge bonus was that she commuted to DC several days per week and worked from home the rest of the time. Her nursing and her law degrees blended well in this position. Every Tuesday morning, she and Adam drove from Wyndley Farm north on Interstate 95 for an hour and a half until they reached their offices. Generally, they returned on Thursday evening but every now and then it varied, depending on her grandfather’s schedule.
They had a driver, a retired secret service agent named Dwight, who chauffeured them.
Alex stared out of her window and admired the falling snow. She’d always found snow to be mystical and special. She jumped when her cell phone rang. It was Jacob. Her heart jumped at the sound of his voice. It bought tears to her eyes. The connection was so clear, he could’ve been in the next office.
"Good morning, beautiful. How's life in DC?" Alex could visualize Jacob doodling on a yellow pad in his closet-sized office in the Middle East. Jacob always doodled when he was on the phone.
"Cold, very cold in fact." Alex had a smile in her voice. "And it's snowing. How’s the most wonderful man in my life?"
"I’m great! I’m fine, but I miss you. It's cold here too, Alex. In fact, it's freezing." Jacob laughed. "Do you like your job?"
Alex hesitated. "I… I think I do. I've been here three weeks, and I think I'm getting a handle on what I'm supposed to do."
"And what, exactly, is that?" He smiled to himself as he considered how beautiful his fiancée must look in her work attire. He’d often kidded her that she cleaned up well. But she was always lovely to him — whether mucking out horse stalls, attending formal dinners, or hanging around the house. Alex was the most beautiful woman he’d ever known. He loved the way the sun highlighted her reddish-gold hair. He couldn’t wait to make her his wife.
A chill raced up Alex’s back at Jacob’s low, sexy voice. "Well, I look at awful things that happen in hospitals — mistakes, malpractice, and safety violations. I examine anything bad, unexplained, or accidental that occurs, and I trend the data over time and look for outliers.” She sighed. “And, that’s pretty much it.”
"That’s sounds pretty impressive. It sounds like that could be a pretty big job based on my limited knowledge of hospitals," Jacob acknowledged. "But, it's right up your alley, and you'll do a fantastic job."
Alex twisted a strand of her hair. "I certainly hope so and it is something I'm interested in. Risk management, patient safety, and malpractice have always been huge concerns of mine.” She paused. “I guess it’s pretty much the same thing I did in New Orleans, but now I’m doing it at the federal level.”
“Ah. You’re a fed. A federal agent.” Jacob sounded amused.
“A federal agent?” she mused. “Yeah, I guess I am, and I always focus on catching the bad guys.”
Jacob laughed. “You’ll get them, Alex. I know you will!”
“You’ve only seen my good side,” she teased. “I can be pretty bad ass, you know!”
“Well, at any rate, you’re doing what you like and what you’re good at doing.” Jacob paused. “By the way, how's our baby?" His voice warmed when he spoke of his son. Alex imagined the warmth in his blue eyes. A chill ran up her spine. She missed him so much.
“Our baby is great. He’s absolutely the smartest, cutest baby in the world! You won't believe how big he's gotten, but I know for certain that he misses his daddy.” Her voice was emotional.
Jacob coughed. "I assure you that AJ's daddy misses him and his mother. I can't wait to see you again." His voice was so soft and sensual, Alex felt warm all over.
"Same here. Any idea when you guys will be home? I’m sure Digger misses Mary and the baby."
Jacob sighed. "Nope, not really. We're looking for one of the major ISIS commanders who's gone underground. He's the one that took his daughter and former wife prisoner a few months ago in Syria. He’d planned to kill them."
Alex’s hand flew to cover her mouth. "Oh, that's awful. Why? Why would someone want to kill their own daughter? I could never imagine wanting to hurt my son."
Jacob smiled to himself. It was an answer he’d expect from Alex. “Faisal Muhammed is a terrorist. He was married to Melody Fitzpatrick, who was the daughter of an American diplomat. When Faisal radicalized and became an extremist, he learned to hate everything Western, including his wife. Melody fled from Syria with her infant daughter, but Faisal found her and later kidnapped the daughter."
Alex reached back into her memory. Some of this was familiar. "Oh! Yes, of course. I remember something about the story. I think I saw it on the news sometime late last year. Isn’t his daughter an Army officer?"
"Yeah, she's a retired major and a physician. Now she's assigned to the War College and practices medicine at Walter Reed."
"Yes, that's right. I remember Adam talking about them at dinner one night. Isn't he, this Faisal guy, supposed to be the worst terrorist around?" Alex had a knot in the pit of her stomach. She hated to think of the evil men Jacob tracked.
"In my book they’re all the worst, but Faisal is called the Demon of the East." Jacob’s voice was matter of fact. "He’s smart and rich. Delta force thought they’d killed him last year, but unfortunately we think he may still be alive."
Alex sat down at her desk and kicked off her shoes. "Why do you think so? Do you think he faked his death?"
Jacob’s quick intake of breath validated his belief. "Yeah. Probably so. We’ve Intel reports seeing him since his ‘death’. We never found his body last year after they rescued Sonia and her mother from Faisal’s compound near Aleppo."
A shudder ran through Alex. She positioned her phone under her chin and hugged herself. She was freezing, either from the weather or fear for Jacob. She wasn’t sure which. "That's pretty scary for his daughter and her mother. I imagine he'll come for them again."
Jacob’s voice was harsh. "No question. He'll come after them. Later today I'm meeting up with my old CIA buddy Jeff Hansen. He’s been Sonia Amon’s handler for years. She's gathered a lot of information while serving as an Army doctor."
"But she was born in Syria?"
"Yup, she lived there as an infant, and her father kidnapped her when she was a toddler. She lived with him in Syria until she was 18. Then she escaped to the US and joined the Army."
Alex’s eyes widened. "Wow. That's quite a story. Have you ever met her, Jacob?"
"Yeah, I have. Once. I came across her in Afghanistan when she patched up some American soldiers who’d been attacked by the Taliban. She’s a good doctor."
"I can only imagine. But you need to hurry up and find this Faisal guy because I miss you, more than you can possibly imagine."
Jacob laughed. "I know you do, but I don't think you miss me any more than I miss you and AJ. I can't wait to get home to see you all." His voice was gruff. He had a huge lump in his throat. Suppose he never made it back. This was a do or die mission.
"Me too! I miss you so much. I miss you to the ends of the earth and back!” she teased. It was a joke between them.
“Right back at you, Alex. I miss you more than all the granules of sand in the sea! But I've got to go. The sat phone is winding down. I'll call again soon. Kiss AJ for me and tell him his daddy loves him."
"I will, Jacob. I love you." Tears filled her eyes as she prepared to hang up the phone. She missed him so much that her chest hurt.
"Love you too, Alex."
A feeling of loneliness overcame her as she clicked off her phone. She and Jacob had come through so many obstacles to be together. She wanted to be with him forever. She slipped off her shoes, sat in her chair, and watched the snow come down. She wished she was at home, at Wyndley Farm with Jacob and AJ, sipping hot chocolate. A few moments later her telephone rang and jerked her out of her melancholy.
It was her grandfather, Congressman Adam Patrick Lee of Virginia.
"Adam, where are you? Is everything okay?" Alex’s heart rate increased. Adam had never called her during the day.
"I'm fine, Alex.” His voice was brusque. “Can you pack up your stuff? I want to leave in a little while, before the interstate gets dangerous. Let's go home to the farm."
Alex’s heart jumped with joy. “But Adam. It's only Wednesday. I've got a bunch of work to do."
"Don't worry about it,” he snapped. “We're supposed to get eighteen inches of snow between now and tomorrow morning. I assure you federal offices will be closed."
"Oh. Okay then. I hadn't heard the weather report. Yeah, we need to leave as soon as we can." Alex's heart leapt at the thought of seeing AJ a day early. “So, we’ll have a snow day! I love it.” Her spirits lifted.
"Pack your stuff. We'll pick you up in about 30 minutes. I'll text you when the car’s outside."
"Thanks, Granddad. I'll be ready." Alex was happy. She loved snow days at Wyndley Farm. That was something she’d missed living in New Orleans. There was something exciting about the white wonderland.
"Just be ready." Adam's voice was gruff, but Alex knew he was smiling. She imagined his full white head of hair bent over his coffee cup as he planned his early escape home. Adam loved snow days as much as she did.
Jacob Stark laid his sat phone on the desk in his small office in a burned-out building outside the historic city of Aleppo. He’d been in Syria for over a month, and he’d never felt so lonely in his life. He’d been working undercover for the agency ever since he’d retired from the army. If he allowed himself to think back, he'd acknowledge long tours of duty in the most dangerous and isolated parts of the world. His personal life had suffered. His first wife had died from cancer several years earlier and most of the time she'd been sick he’d been away. Tears filled his eyes as he thought about her and the suffering she’d endured alone. He’d missed most of his daughter Haley’s life as well. He smiled when he thought of her. She and Alex were close. Haley had spent much of the summer with them at Wyndley Farm, where she’d gotten to meet her new brother, AJ, and learned to ride horses. Alex’s grandmother owned one of the finest horse farms on the East Coast, so it seemed natural that Alex should teach Haley to ride. It’d been a beautiful summer. Now Haley was back in New York where she lived with Alex’s biological father and her grandmother. He pulled out his wallet and looked at the latest picture of his daughter, now almost a teenager. She was beautiful. A mirror likeness of her mother. His heart was sad. He missed Haley, her mother, Alex and AJ.
A sharp knock on his door lulled him out of his daydream. His old CIA buddy, Jeff Hansen, stood in the doorway. Hansen looked good. He was tall and slender with brown hair and hazel eyes. He’d been the CIA’s main guy in the Middle East for years.
Jacob embraced him. “Jeff, you old son-of-a-gun. You never change!”
Jeff smiled. “Nor do you my man. How’s things? I hear you’re getting married, to the Congressman’s granddaughter no less. How’d you manage that?” he smirked. “She’s a beauty.”
Jacob shrugged his shoulders as a flush passed over his face. “Yeah. That’s true, and I couldn’t be happier, but I have no idea why she likes me.” He changed the subject. “Want some coffee, man? I know Digger wants to see you.”
“Coffee is good but I'm hungry, too. You think we could grab something to eat somewhere?"
"Sure. Hang loose and I’ll grab Digger. Have a seat in my executive suite." Jacob grinned as he looked around his closet-sized office.
“I’ll take the only chair.”
Jacob found Digger in his office. He tapped on his open door and Digger looked up. "Hey, Jacob. I hear they’re getting a blizzard at Wyndley Farm. I've asked Mary to take the baby and go stay at the big house with Kathryn and Adam."
Jacob nodded. "Oh yeah. They love snow there. I talked with Alex a little while ago. I wish I was snowed in at Wyndley Farm. We’d chow down on the best grub with Mary and Kathryn cooking.”
Digger nodded. "That we would. Those women can really cook. And I'm always happy to eat." His brown eyes were wistful. “They’ll have a big time this week. We’ll miss this storm, but we’ll catch the next one.”
Jacob nodded. "Jeff's in my office. He just got in country. He wants to grab something to eat. That okay with you?"
Digger nodded. "Yeah. Sure. I got a place we can talk without being overheard, and the foods not too bad."
"Let's go." Jacob motioned Digger toward the door.
Digger grabbed his warm coat and followed Jacob to his office. Jeff smiled broadly when he saw Digger. They were buddies from way back. The two men had tramped through more forests and mountains and tracked more bad guys than Digger could remember.
Jeff shook his head as he examined Digger. "Honestly man, you never change. Is that because of those Native American genes you have? You don't even have any gray in your hair — and dude, you’ve got a lot of hair." Jeff rubbed his thinning scalp. “I’m envious.”
Digger grinned. "Don't you know that we Injuns never get gray? We go to the happy hunting ground with all of our hair, looking the same as we did when we were twenty-five."
Jacob watched as the two older men embraced. Digger and Jeff went way back, particularly in the Middle East. They were the best of friends and between the two of them, knew most of the secrets of the free world and exactly how the free world had remained free. Jacob smiled to himself. He was honored to work with both legendary men.
Twenty minutes later the three men sat in a lounge a couple of miles from Digger’s makeshift office, about thirteen miles outside of Aleppo. The restaurant was basically empty except for a couple of old men sharing stories about better days in Syria. Jacob, Digger and Jeff shared a typical Mid-Eastern lunch of hummus, flat bread, vegetables and of course, tea. Chia tea, a blend of tea and spices to include cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves often produces increased energy and well-being.
After they’d eaten, consumed a couple of cups of chia, and caught up on old times Jeff motioned them to come closer. "Do you have any new Intel on our man?"
Digger nodded. "Yeah. We're sure he's alive and kicking. We've had several reports that he's been seen in and around this area as well as in Damascus a couple weeks ago."
Hansen nodded. "Yeah. I figured. I've heard similar things from my informants, one of whom has a father in the Emir’s close circle."
Digger nodded. "We also have a contact who says Faisal is responsible for the sniper attack and subsequent death of Major Paul Grayson." Jacob saw Jeff's eyebrows shoot up. Jacob exchanged glances with Digger. The Native-American’s eyes were unreadable.
"Really?" Jeff’s lips were pressed into a thin line, a scowl on his face. “I’d thought as much.”
Jacob could see a muscle jump in Jeff’s jaw. A slow flush covered his face. He pressed his lips together. "I always thought that, but it’s never been validated. We've long suspected it," he added as he looked over at Digger. "How reliable is your source?"
Digger shrugged his shoulders. "Pretty good actually. I'd say an easy ninety percent. Besides,” he grimaced, “who else around here would attempt to assassinate a US Army commander?"
Jeff shook his head. He clenched and unclenched a fist. "Probably no one and certainly not a rank and file terrorist. It fits, especially when you consider that Faisal’s daughter was engaged to Colonel Grayson.”
Digger nodded. He steepled his fingers. "What happened there? I'd heard Grayson made it to Ramstein and was stable. I thought he was supposed to recover."
Jeff gritted his teeth. He opened his arms and laid them palms up on the table. "He was. We don't have all the pieces, but we suspect Faisal had someone in the United States, at Walter Reed, maybe a doctor or nurse that finished Paul off. We don’t have proof, and the lab tests remain inconclusive." He paused. “But, that’s pretty much what we think.” His smile was tight-lipped.
Digger nodded slowly and shook his head, his long ponytail moved side to side. "That's too bad. Paul Grayson was a good man. A good Army Officer. He knew the Middle East like the back of his hand. He must've had five tours over here. I worked with him off and on for almost ten years."
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