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A Heartbeat Away

by Michael Palmer

To my editor at St. Martin’s Press, Jennifer Enderlin, and to my agent at the Jane Rotrosen Agency, Meg Ruley.

How blessed can a writer be?

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

When writing a novel, help comes in many, and often unexpected, ways.In addition to my editor and agent (see the dedication), deepest thanks to:

Dr. David Grass, neurology

Dr. Geoffrey Sherwood, hematology/oncology

Dr. Connie Mariano, White House medicine

Paul Weiss, power specialist

Robin Broady, LICSW

Jessica Bladd Palmer

Pilot Dave Pascoe

Steve Westfall, biocontainment

And to my main men always and forever:

Daniel, Luke, and Matthew, the McGuffin Guy

To anyone I might have missed, thank you, too. Promise I’ll catch you next time.

UNITED STATES OF AMERICA ORDER OF PRESIDENTIAL SUCCESSION

  1. Vice President

  2. Speaker of the House

  3. President Pro Tempore of the Senate

  4. Secretary of State

  5. Secretary of the Treasury

  6. Secretary of Defense

  7. Attorney General

  8. Secretary of the Interior

  9. Secretary of Agriculture

10. Secretary of Commerce

11. Secretary of Labor

12. Secretary of Health and Human Services

13. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

14. Secretary of Transportation

15. Secretary of Energy

16. Secretary of Education

17. Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs

18. Secretary of Homeland Security

PROLOGUE

The last thing Eddie Gostowski was thinking about on Thursday evening, the twenty-second of May, was that he was going to die.

For the first hour or so of his 11 P.M. to 7 A.M. shift as a security guard for the NYISO power distribution giant, he had been thinking about the Yankees, and wondering if they had enough pitching to win the American League East Division again. For the second hour, he had debated whether to buy flowers or candy this year for his beloved Mary’s sixtieth birthday.

Eddie had been patrolling this particular control facility for most of the eleven years the New York Independent System Operator had been in existence, and nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened— absolutely nothing … not once. He understood his job and he understood what was at stake should the NYISO somehow shed its entire load at once—a massive blackout of almost indescribable proportions, engulfing everyplace from Albany to New York City and Long Island. It was his job, along with others in the chain of virtually fail-safe checks and balances, to ensure such a disaster never occurred.

But nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened at his control facility—absolutely nothing … not once.

As he had every night at this time, Eddie set a timer for fifteen minutes and prepared to take a nap. But first, one last check of things. It took him a few seconds to realize that several of his gauges had gone out of whack. The unmanned substations serving Marcy to Albany and Albany to Leeds had gone off-line.

Curious.

Eddie began ticking off all the possible explanations for the weird happening, and came up with little. If the gauges were right, and there was no way they could be, there was no longer any power going to the capital district, which surrounded and included Albany.

Still more bewildered than alarmed, Eddie moved to his left. His equipment told the same story for other substations. Dunwoodie to Long Island and Ravensbrook in Queens had also been tripped. Goethals and Farragut, controlling the power to large portions of New York City, was down as well. Assuming the readings were all correct, the whole system was unstable, and the largest city in the country was on the verge of something massive and horrible.

Eddie’s first move was a call to the nearest manned station 150 miles north in Albany. Seven rings and an answering machine.

Even an explosion at the facility in Albany would not cause this sort of power loss. Since its inception, NYISO had been closing loopholes in its system to the point where an almost inconceivable number of events had to occur simultaneously to cause any major degree of problems.

But incredibly, those events were happening.

As far as Eddie could tell, his control station was now the only thing standing against a blackout that would engulf most of eastern New York including Long Island and the five boroughs of New York City.

He raced to the phone, got the emergency number of the FBI from a chart on the wall, and began dialing.

That was when he felt the point of a knife press against the back of his neck.

“Set the receiver down, sport,” a man’s husky voice said in an accent that sounded British.

The knife point felt as if it were going to slice straight into Eddie’s spine.

“P-please. That hurts.”

“What’s your name, sport?”

“Eddie. Eddie Gostowski. Please.”

“I’m going to lower the knife, Eddie, but unless you do exactly as I say, you’re a dead man. Got that?”

“Yes.”

“I SAID, HAVE YOU GOT THAT?”

“Yes! Yes! Now pl—”

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