Enjoy an exclusive sneak preview of the (unedited!) first three chapters of Intentional Acts; a Sasha McCandless Legal Thriller
Meeting of the National Joint Terrorism Task Force
National Counterterrorism Center
Timothy O’Donnell trailed the Director into the crowded conference room, still
wearing his overcoat and warming his cupped hands with his breath.
“It’s colder than a witch’s t … toothbrush out there,” he boomed, catching sight
of Ingrid at the last moment, just in time to sanitize his weather commentary.
A handful of the assembled agency and department heads smothered their
laughs with fake coughs as they cut their eyes toward Ingrid. But the Director
gave no appearance of having noticed any of it. He had his head bent close to
his aide and was delivering rapid-fire instructions.
Even given the Director’s obliviousness, Ingrid Velder’d had sufficient
experience being the only woman in an endless series of conference rooms to
know she needed to get out in front of it.
“I believe the saying is colder than a witch’s tit, O’Donnell.” Her voice carried
across the room. She waited a moment for the fresh round of muffled laughter to
die down before adding, “And it’s not that cold. Back home, it’s minus twelve.
Now that’s cold. Cold enough to freeze the balls off a brass monkey.”
O’Donnell roared, pockets of laughter broke out among the country’s best and
brightest, and even the Director managed a polite chuckle. Despite her doctorate
in psychology, Ingrid imagined she’d go to her grave without ever figuring out
what precisely men found so funny about their genitalia. All she knew is that if
she managed a reference to it early in a meeting, briefing, or conference, her
colleagues relaxed perceptibly.
“It’s oddly appropriate that you’re all talking about the weather, but let’s get
started, shall we?” the Director announced with a smile.
He gestured toward the long, polished table, and people hurried to claim
seats. Ingrid wrestled a standard-issue black, vinyl chair out from under the table.
The chairs were crammed so tightly around the table that the arms touched.
Ingrid had never been one for pomp and circumstance, but she had to admit
she was just the tiniest bit disappointed. When she’d seen the agenda and
attendee list for this meeting, she’d thought there was an outside chance they’d
meet in the secure videoconference room—the one with all the monitors and the
shiny, futuristic conference table shaped like an ellipse with one open end. The
one where the President received briefings. She’d only ever glimpsed it, but it
looked like it belonged on the Starship Enterprise. Instead, this lineup of heavy
hitters had been shoehorned into a bland conference room that would fit right in
at any mid-priced hotel chain.
She hoped that wasn’t a portend of what was to come. She’d been told this
meeting was critical and her attendance was necessary. If this turned out to be a
discussion about some budgetary hoo-haw or, worse yet, the latest effort to
improve morale and retention, she’d have her assistant’s head on a pike.
The Director cleared his throat and surveyed the room, interrupting her
“Thank you all for braving the cold to be here.” He paused to smirk at
O’Donnell. “A cursory glance around the table ought to confirm the importance of
today’s meeting. Gentlemen—and Ms. Velder—we’re facing a clear and present
terroristic threat the likes of which our nation has never seen. The situation is
dire. And we need to act quickly. I give you Project Storm Chaser.”
On cue, the aide clicked a button on the laptop in front of him and a
PowerPoint presentation loaded on the wall-sized screen behind the Director’s
Project Storm Chaser. Ingrid scribbled the words in her cherry red journal.
She’d used one of the leather-bound day keepers favored by executives the
world over until she stumbled on a blog devoted to the bullet journal craze. Now,
she kept her appointments, to-do lists, errands, and trackers for how much water
she drank and how many criminals she swept off the streets all in one colorful,
grid-dotted pocketed journal decorated with whimsical patterned tape and
stickers. The incongruity amused her. And as the director of a standing shadow
task force, funded by the Department of Homeland Security and tasked with
performing those missions too dangerous, too illicit, and too ugly for DHS to
acknowledge officially, humor was in short supply in Ingrid’s day-to- day
“Storm Chaser? Sounds more like a project for the weather service.”
The Director turned toward the speaker, and Ingrid did, too. Harry Cole, who,
like Ingrid, headed a program that officially didn’t exist. All she knew was Cole
worked with the National Security Agency/Central Security Service and members
of the various armed forces’ intelligence agencies doing … something of
questionable legality but paramount importance.
“Fair enough, Harry. Seems climate change really is dangerous.”
The Director waited for the laugh.
The group managed a few weak chuckles.
He went on. “As you surely remember, last year brought us more than our fair
share of extreme weather events.”
His aide clicked to a slide that listed the catastrophic storms that had
hammered the United States, one after another, to the tune of hundreds of
billions of dollars worth of damage. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. A trio of
“So, what’re you saying—ISIL controls the weather now?” Blaine Wilson, the
Deputy Director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, wanted to know.
Ingrid reminded herself that Wilson was actually FBI, assigned to the CIA as
part of the two agencies’ work together through the FBI’s counterterrorism
division. In fact, every person squeezed around the table had a rock-solid
pedigree in counterterrorism. Her heart ticked up beat. This meeting wasn’t about
“No, but it benefits from it. ISIL, Hezbollah, al Qaeda—they all do. Not to
mention our homegrown knuckleheads.”
O’Donnell drew his eyebrows together. “Benefit how?”
The aide pulled up the next slide, and the Director’s neutral expression folded
in on itself. He continued with a grimace, “Some of you’ve been around long
enough to remember the aftermath of Katrina back in ’05. You may recall that we
lost track of some folks on the terrorist watch list in the wake of the storm. They
got swept up in the evacuations and ended up who-knows- where.”
Several heads bobbed, Ingrid’s among them.
She’d been working for the FBI’s Financial Crimes Section back then. Her
investigations had been impacted by the hurricane—shoot, everyone’s had. And
the Bureau had been in a low-level panic over the fact that dozens of targets
they’d been tracking were in the wind. 9/11 was still fresh in the populace’s
memory. There was no way the government could let the media get wind of the
news that potential terrorists were roaming around the country unaccounted for.
There’d been an all hands on deck scramble by the Bureau’s National Security
Analysis Center (NSAC) to feed flags into the Investigative Data Warehouse, or
IDW, in an effort to find them.
“If memory serves, NSAC eventually caught up with most of them,” Wilson
volunteered. “The Pentagon was able step up and assist.”
“Correct, Blaine. And today, they can’t do so, because the Counter-
Intelligence Field Agency is no more.”
Technically—officially—the Director was right. But everyone at that table knew
darn well the Pentagon’s spies could still gather intelligence on American
citizens, and probably were out there doing exactly that at this very moment. And
they all also knew the IDW was quaint—a relic compared to the vast network of
military, government, and commercial databases the NSAC could now access.
But nobody spoke up.
The Director pointed to his final slide. “We’re in way worse shape than we
were post-Katrina, folks. My people have combed through the databases.
Preliminary estimates are that more than six hundred suspects have fallen off our
radar since the big three storms. Let me repeat, that’s six hundred-plus potential
terrorists. And we have no idea where they are.”
The already-heavy atmosphere of the room grew downright oppressive.
“So Project Storm Chaser—” Ingrid began.
“Is how we’re going to find the bastards. Beginning immediately, Project
Storm Chaser is the top priority for each of you. We’re going to track down every
one of these targets. Every last one,” the Director finished.
Ingrid closed her journal. Some sixth sense told her she wouldn’t want to have
a written record of the rest of this meeting.
Six weeks later
The Law Offices of McCandless, Volmer & Andrews
Sasha McCandless-Connelly gave her legal partner and best friend a blank
“Seriously, Mac? You really don’t remember? It was my pro bono project last
year.” Naya tossed her head and made a clicking noise with her tongue.
“Did you just tsk-tsk me because I don’t remember a client you donated legal
services to? Do you know who I represented pro bono last year?”
“There was that guy from Angola seeking asylum—I gave you a hand with his
petition. Then you represented the woman who stole her abusive husband’s car
to escape her marriage. And I think you also did something for the library.” She
reeled them off.
“Want me to tell you who Will did pro bono work for?”
Sasha took a swig of lukewarm coffee and tried not to shudder at the acidic
taste. She desperately needed a warm up—or even better, a fresh mug.
“No need. You’ve proved your point. I’m sorry I don’t remember
DoGooderHive or whatever they—”
“Right. Sorry.” She searched her memory. “Did you help them get their
designation as a non-profit charity?”
Naya beamed. “You do remember. Right, I guided them through the
application process for their 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status.”
Sasha willed her eyes not to glaze over at the reference to the Tax Code. “I
sort of remember. In fairness, though, I did have a pretty busy year last year, and
I definitely didn’t lend you a hand. I’d still be having I.R.S.-related nightmares if I
“It’s all good. Because now they need help with something that’s definitely in
Naya lifted her chin, and Sasha knew better than to point out the towering pile
of deposition transcripts teetering on the credenza. Or the stack of invoices she
needed to review and send out. Or the unearned continuing legal education
credits hanging over her head. Or the fact that the twins had pediatrician
appointments. She’d baked community service and pro bono work into her firm
from the very beginning. She couldn’t very well whine that it wasn’t convenient
this week. Instead, she grabbed her pen and leaned forward.
“DoGiveThrive received an information request from the feds.” She handed
Sasha a sheet of paper she’d been waving around.
“A request, not a subpoena?”
Sasha scanned the short memo Naya had prepared. Some governmental
contractor had wanted the charity to voluntarily search its database against a list
of names the government would provide and turn over the results.
“And your—our—client politely told them to go pound salt, right? Please tell
me I’m right.”
“You’re right. They’re do-gooders, not idiots.”
“So, what’s the problem? The government pushed back?”
“Not exactly.” She raked her fingers through her hair. “But about forty-eight
hours after they told the feds to kiss their rears, they fell victim to a data breach.”
“Ah, that stinks.”
“It stinks? It’s a freaking disaster!”
“Simmer down. It’s probably nowhere near as bad as it looks—at least from a
legal perspective. So long as they safeguarded the information using reasonable
precautions, they really only need to address the public relations issue. Typically,
there’s no legal liability unless the company acted intentionally to release private
Sasha smiled, happy to have been able to quell Naya’s worry so simply. The
only problem was, Naya didn’t seem remotely reassured. She cut her eyes
toward Sasha and pressed her lips together.
“What?” Sasha demanded.
“Would the actions of a rogue employee be considered intentional?”
“A rogue employee? You’re telling me DoGiveThrive wasn’t the victim of
hackers? It was an inside job?”
“Bingo. A programmer who worked for them quit. Apparently on his way out
the door, he uploaded all their user data to some paste site, whatever that is.”
Sasha’s stomach sank to somewhere in the vicinity of her knees and she
pressed her fingertips against her temples.
“I’ll need to do some research. What, if anything, does the data breach have to do with the information request?”
“It’s just suspicious—the timing, the programmer’s behavior before he quit, I’m
not sure what else. They’d like to meet you at their office to explain it all in more
“Before I make any client visits, what exactly is it they want me to do?”
“They need to notify their users about the data breach. They’d like some help
with the notification. Obviously, the goal is to avoid being sued. So, if you could
advise them on procedure, that would be good. You’ve got experience guiding
clients through recalls. This is sort of similar. And if litigation is threatened,
they’re going to need help.” She held up a hand. “Before you even say it, they
know we can’t defend a big privacy breach case pro bono. They’ll be able to pay
a reduced fee. But let’s hope it doesn’t get to that.”
“Since when are you an optimist?”
“Since I promised these guys you’d help them without clearing it with you
first.” Naya produced her most winning smile.
Sasha laughed despite herself. “Remind me what the business model is here.
What kind of information does DoGiveThrive collect, and what do they do with
“They’re a twist on a crowdfunding site. People or organizations in need can
post projects seeking funding, and then folks can donate small amounts to help
them reach their goals.”
“Lots of sites do that.”
“Sure, but DoGiveThrive differentiates itself on two counts—one, it very
carefully vets the recipients of the funds. Some other sites do vetting, too, but
these guys really dig deep. The Chief Caring Officer personally visits every
potential recipient, sits down with him or her, and hears his or her story. The
company also conducts an extensive financial review of every individual or group
before they accept them as a site project.”
“What’s the second thing?” Sasha reached for her coffee mug then
reconsidered. She’d hold off until she could get some fresh stuff from the coffee
“They also guarantee anonymity—for both the recipients and the donors.
There’s no option for either side to know the other. It’s like a closed adoption. It’s
central to the company’s mission. They believe that to truly give freely, both the
donor and the recipient have to remain anonymous.”
“So this data breach …”
Naya nodded. “It’s a major violation. Not just of people’s private information,
but of the company’s core promise. The office is in a total uproar. And they have
to get out in front of it—fast. Or they’ll risking losing the trust of their community.”
Sasha’s chest tightened. Naya’s client had a serious problem, one that could
sink the company if it wasn’t handled properly. “I don’t think they need a lawyer. It
sounds like they need a crisis management firm.”
“Yeah, well, those don’t work pro bono. I told them you’re the next best
thing—a lawyer who consistently gets herself into and out of crises.” Naya
laughed shortly, but Sasha didn’t hear any humor in it.
“Geez, I’m flattered.”
“Come on. I’ll walk you out.”
Sasha powered down her laptop, packed up her bag, and wriggled into her
coat. “Aren’t you coming, too? It’s your client.”
“I know, and I would. But I promised Will that I’d pitch in on the briefs you
were supposed to be working on for his foreign bribery case.”
She’d entirely forgotten her promise to help Will. She was already
overextended—what was one more major case? “Fine, but we’re stopping by
Jake’s and you’re buying me a fresh coffee for the road.”
“Pull-ease. Do I look like I’m new here? I already called down and put in your
order. And since when do you pay for coffee at Jake’s?”
“Good point. Lucky for us we know a pro bono coffee shop owner.”
This time, Naya’s laughter rang true. “Pro bono, my sweet behind. Jake builds
the cost of your caffeine addiction right into the lease.”
Sasha nodded. It could very well be true. And worth every penny.
Across town in an undisclosed location
FOR YOUR EYES ONLY
DISTRIBUTION LIST: Project Storm Chaser Task Force Members
Phase One has been completed. The Project Storm Chaser Task Force has
run queries for all missing targets’ names and known aliases across all one
hundred and thirty databases maintained by our governmental, military, state,
and commercial partners, including but not limited to all files maintained by
NSAC. As teams continue to comb through the hits obtained from this initial
search, Phase Two of the project is being implemented on a rolling basis.
Select contractors have been provided subsets of the initial search results and
the lists of targets and advised to hone in on their current locations. Contractors
were advised to prioritize this project.
All Task Force members should identify teams internal to their
departments who will be on call and ready to interview, detail, and, if
necessary, neutralize identified targets.
Further details will be disseminated on a need-to- know basis.
Ingrid read the short memorandum, re-read it, and put it facedown on the top
of the pile of documents to be shredded at the end of the day. Then she turned
her attention back to the pair of men standing in her makeshift office.
“Where are we on the James matter?”
Hank Richardson glanced as his second-in- command before answering.
“Ma’am, Leo has compiled a pretty thorough dossier on Mr. James. He seems to
be clean—at least as far as the counterfeiting is concerned.”
Beside him, Leo Connelly nodded his agreement.
Ingrid couldn’t hide her surprise. “Really? His brother hasn’t contacted him at
“Not once,” Connelly confirmed. “Milton James may need someone to run his
criminal enterprise while he’s behind bars, but I don’t think he’s tapped his
brother for that role.”
“Why on earth not?” Ingrid muttered more to herself than to Richardson and
Connelly cleared his throat and answered anyway. “Milton may have found
out that his younger brother’s been … comforting his wife while he’s serving his
“Paul James is sleeping with his sister-in- law?”
Ingrid shook her head. “Well, I suppose once Milton’s released, he’ll kill them
both, and we’ll get to put him away again.”
Richardson chuckled then shifted his weight. “So, do you want us to close the
Paul James matter and see if we can gather any intel on who is minding the store
She nodded absently. “Yes.” Her gaze fell on the upside-down memo. “But
don’t get to wrapped up in it. You’re both—we’re all—on standby and could
receive a priority assignment any day. Straight from NCTC.”
Hank whistled, a long, low note. “Want to give us the background?”
“Can’t. This is a top-secret, need-to- know project.”
The men exchanged a look.
She pursed her lips and weighed how much to divulge. Richardson was her
most trusted deputy. He headed her only standing task force. And Connelly was
his most trusted deputy. They’d run more successful operations out of the
Pittsburgh office than the rest of her department combined. But, still, there was a
limit to what she could share at this point.
She chose her words with care. “Analysts have been running algorithms on a
lot of information from the databases. Now they’re reaching out to private entities
to do the same. Once they’ve had a chance to dig into all the data and analyze
and categorize it, I suspect we’re—you’re—going to be busy.”
“Busy how, ma’am? Interviews? Surveillance?” Connelly asked.
They all knew the real question was unasked, buried under the words he’d
“Sure. But possibly more complicated work. It could get messy.”
It was as much as she could say. But it was plenty.
Richardson raised his eyebrows. A muscle twitched in Connelly’s left cheek.
After a moment’s silence, Richardson coughed. “And messy work’s been
“Nothing’s been authorized yet. But the scope of this project goes up to and
includes neutralizing confirmed threats.”
Ingrid locked eyes with each man in turn. None of them spoke. They all
intellectually understood their department’s mission could require them to take a
human life. And she knew both men had, in fact, fired their weapons in the line of
But assassination was different. It wasn’t a reaction to a threat encountered in
the field. It was a calculated decision to eliminate a potential threat. It was playing
God. And she prayed to God that neither of them would be called upon to do it.
But if one them was, then he would. It was that simple.
She waited another ten seconds for the message to fully sink in.