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THREE COMPLETE, FULL-LENGTH NOVELS FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
The Protocol (A James Acton Thriller #1)
Brass Monkey (A James Acton Thriller #2)
Broken Dove (A James Acton Thriller #3)
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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY COMES THE PROTOCOL, A GLOBE-SPANNING, HEART-POUNDING ACTION ADVENTURE TWO THOUSAND YEARS IN THE MAKING!
For two thousand years the Triarii have protected us, influencing history from the crusades to the discovery of America. Descendant from the Roman Empire, they pervade every level of society, and are now in a race with our own government to retrieve an ancient artifact thought to have been lost forever.
Caught in the middle is Archaeology Professor James Acton, relentlessly hunted by the elite Delta Force, under orders to stop at nothing to possess what he has found, and the Triarii, equally determined to prevent the discovery from falling into the wrong hands.
With his students and friends dying around him, Acton flees to find the one person who might be able to help him, but little does he know he may actually be racing directly into the hands of an organization he knows nothing about?
With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 five-star reviews, USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy has been ranked by Amazon as the #1 Bestselling Action Adventure novelist based upon combined sales. He is the author of over thirty international bestsellers including the smash hit James Acton Thrillers. He lives with his wife and daughter and writes full-time.
"A master storyteller." — Betty Richard
"A writer who tells what we are thinking but sometimes afraid to say." — Bruce Ford
"Kennedy kicks ass in this genre." — David Mavity
"One of the best writers today." — Johnny Olsen
"If you want fast and furious, if you can cope with a high body count, most of all if you like to be hugely entertained, then you can't do much better than J Robert Kennedy." — Amazon Vine Voice Reviewer
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The Protocol Brass Monkey Broken Dove The Templar's Relic Flags of Sin The Arab Fall The Circle of Eight The Venice Code Pompeii's Ghosts Amazon Burning The Riddle Blood Relics Sins of the Titanic Saint Peter's Soldiers The Thirteenth Legion Raging Sun Wages of Sin Wrath of the Gods The Templar's Revenge
Rogue Operator Containment Failure Cold Warriors Death to America Black Widow The Agenda Retribution
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About the Author
Also by the Author
The crystal skulls referred to herein are real, and have been confirmed to be of unknown origin and unknown method of manufacture by top scientists at Hewlett-Packard.
“And he bearing his cross went forth into a place called the place of a skull, which is called in the Hebrew Golgotha: Where they crucified him, and two other with him, on either side one, and Jesus in the midst.”
John 19:17-18 King James Version
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act out their dream with open eyes, to make it possible.”
London, England 1212 AD
“Papa! Help me, please help me!”
Lord Richard Baxter picked himself up from the ground, his knee torn open, the wound demanding attention, its sting ignored. Consuming all his thoughts were his daughter’s desperate cries as they tore at the night like a dagger, slicing through the tortured wailing surrounding him, while fire engulfed home after home. With the smoke choking him, the heat searing his lungs, he held the sleeve of his tunic over his mouth and raced toward the pleas of his precious daughter. Tears streaked the soot on his face, his eyes irritated by the smoke and the overwhelming mental image of his daughter’s plight.
As he pushed through the carnage and destruction, he wondered what could possibly remain of his family home, a home paid for in blood six years earlier while saving King John’s mistress from brigands. His heroics had earned him the King’s thanks, and a Lordship over a small plot of land. As a member of the council, he kept a modest home in London with his beloved wife and daughter, the taxes he now collected from his new territory affording him the luxury of improving their lot.
He stumbled forward, the pain in his knee now too much to ignore. He couldn’t help but conjure images of his wife and daughter, any happy thought of them shoved aside with horrid imaginings of them burning alive, his name on their lips, asking why he hadn’t been there to save them.
It crushed his heart, the thought of not being there with them in their hour of need. His work had run late, very late, and if it weren’t for the unexpected happenings at the council, he would have been home with them, able perhaps to save them from the plight they now suffered.
They’re dying because of you!
He had been in the council chambers, meeting with the elders to discuss the latest discovery, when a terrific explosion had leveled the once mighty walls. He had been one of a handful to survive, and was in the process of attempting to rescue those still trapped in the chamber, when word had reached him of what was happening outside.
Then his only thought was to get home to his family.
What he had found had rendered him speechless. As far as the eye could see, almost every structure had been flattened. Twisted bodies lay strewn about, fires springing up all around him, spreading fast, lighting the thatched roofs of the houses left standing.
He rounded the smoldering embers of what was once a proud stand of trees, to see flames devouring the last remaining section of his home not knocked over by the blast. His servants were desperately dousing the flames with water from the nearby well, but it was of no use. The house was a loss, the hellish flames consuming every surface as if possessed by an unquenchable thirst.
His daughter’s screams reached him from inside.
“Lord Baxter!” cried his valet. “Thank the good Lord you are all right. I had feared the worst.”
“She is trapped inside, m’Lord, and we are unable to reach her. I’m afraid your wife was killed in the initial conflagration.”
Richard’s chest ached at the news of his dear wife’s death, his eyes filling with tears as his heart silently broke, but another cry from his daughter had him cautiously approaching the roaring fire as he pushed his grief aside, knowing if he didn’t act quickly, he would lose all that remained of his wife. Shielding himself from the intense heat with his cloak, he retreated, the flames licking the night air as if searching for another taste of the blood it had already claimed.
“Papa!” The pain and desperation in her voice tore at his heart as he imagined his wife, crying from Heaven for him to save their daughter. He ran toward the entrance of the home, determined to salvage what remained of a once happy family, but was grabbed by two of his servants.
“M’Lord, ’tis suicide to enter!” one cried. “You will surely die!”
Wresting free, he rushed for the door when the front wall collapsed inward, silencing the terrified voice. He fell to his knees and sobbed, his fists slamming into the ground as all hope, all dreams of the future, died in that moment, as his will to live left him.
The servants pulled him to safety and to the body of his cherished wife. He stared upon her still form, her lower body charred from the flames, and wept as he imagined the agonizing death she must have endured. He gazed upon her face and noticed her neck, twisted and broken, and prayed it happened before the burning, this small comfort lessening his anguish only slightly as his chest heaved with sobs, his family wiped from existence with one swing of an unforgiving and unknown broadsword of evil. He raised his hands to the heavens and prayed for God to care for their souls, and to reunite them all.
A throat cleared behind him, causing a momentary flash of anger to rush through his body as he reached for his sword, rage consuming him as his tortured soul demanded retribution, demanded that all things die so there was no possibility he could experience joy or happiness again, his entire being overwhelmed in grief and self-pity.
He sucked in a deep breath, holding it as he again stared to the heavens, silently praying for easy entrance into the celestial paradise for his loved ones. Rising to his feet, he wiped the tears from his face before turning to see who had interrupted him.
It was his manservant. “Yes, what is it?”
“I am so sorry to intrude in your hour of grief, m’Lord,” his trusted man murmured, his head bowed, “but the council page has said that your presence is required immediately. I told him that you were unavailable, but he was most insistent.”
Richard raised his hand, cutting him off. “Tell him I will be along in a moment.” He turned back to his wife, knelt down, and placed one last tender kiss upon her forehead, before rising to fulfill his greater duty, a duty handed down for over a thousand years.
The British Museum London, England Present Day
Clive Obrock sat at the central security station of the British Museum with his black Nike-shod feet crossed at the ankles, perched on a corner of his desk, with his chair tilted precariously back, his long ponytail suspended in the air. His bony hands were clasped behind his head, revealing the beginnings of yellow sweat stains under the armpits of his threadbare shirt. His mother had told him to replace it, but he hadn’t seen the need—when he had his jacket on, which was all of the time when outside of this room, nobody could see his armpits anyway. He had told her to mind her own business, then wondered why he’d ever agreed to move back into the old family home.
The room hummed with the fans of the computers, almost drowning out the annoying buzz of the overhead fluorescent lighting. Banks of monitors surrounded him, each alternating between different areas of the museum. Various entrances and exhibits flashed by, revealing security guards on patrol, empty corridors, and lonely displays. Clive had worked here so long, the priceless works of art, and artifacts of mostly forgotten ancient civilizations, had lost their allure and fascination.
The only screen that interested him now was the one showing the Man-U football game.
So engrossed was he, that he didn’t notice the car pull up to the Montague Place entrance, or its lone occupant dash to the maintenance door, sheltered from an incessant English rain by the jacket pulled over his head. He rang the buzzer.
Clive nearly fell out of his seat. He killed the game and turned to the monitor demanding his attention. The jacket protected the hunkered over figure from both the rain and the camera. Clive punched the intercom button.
“The museum is closed, sir.”
“Clive, it’s me, Rodney! Let me in, I’m freezing my bollocks off!”
Clive laughed and tapped in the code to open the maintenance entrance. A buzzer sounded, and he watched the door open as Rodney Underwood pushed against it. A moment later his friend appeared on the inner corridor camera, shaking the rain from his jacket and running his hands through his hair, the water puddling around his discount-store Oxfords. Rodney flashed a grin then mouthed something at the camera, prompting Clive to punch up the audio.
“—E-R-P! Double O-L, Liverpool FC!”
Clive pressed the intercom button. “United’s goin’ to kick yer arses!”
Rodney flipped him the bird then continued toward the security station. Clive laughed and turned the game back on, propping his feet on the desk corner again. A few minutes later, there was a knock at the station door. He reached under the desk and pressed the entry buzzer. The door opened behind him.
“Hey, Rodney, United’s up by one!”
He kicked off the desk, spinning his chair to face the door, keeping his eyes on the game as long as he could. As his chair completed its spin, he turned his head around to see the barrel of a gun pointed at him. The gun fired and a stinging pain radiated from the center of this chest as he was hit. He slid from the chair into a heap on the floor, and the last thing he saw before the world blackened around him was his friend of five years standing over him.
On the monitor, Liverpool tied the game.
Andes Mountains, Peru One Week Earlier
Garcia swung the pickaxe against the cave wall. The clumped dirt and rock sprayed back at him, mixing with the sweat glistening on his head and soaking through his shirt. “Este trabajo de Puta me lleva al Diablo,” he muttered under his breath.
I feel like a mule. I don’t see the Americanos getting dirty.
He swung again, and another shower of dirt flew back from the wall. It was slow, hard work, but the professor had said there may be a secret room on the other side. Garcia respected the professor.
He gets dirty.
At first, he had agreed to be a guide, his deeply ingrained superstitions too strong to participate in disturbing the ancient home of the ancestors. But the professor had a way of making him feel at ease, so he had agreed to help with the heavy labor. Now he was regretting it. Another swing, and this time the axe almost came out of his hands as he broke through.
Excited, he cleared away more dirt, exposing the other side. After a few minutes of digging with his hands, he stuck his head through the hole. The pungent smell of centuries of rot and decay threatened to overwhelm him, yet he persevered, pushing his head in further. He couldn’t see anything. Then he remembered the flashlight on his belt. He fumbled for it, his fingers numb from swinging the axe, his heart pounding in excitement. Finally grasping it, he shone the light through the hole as he stuck his head back in. At first, he saw only more dirt, then as he played the light around, it struck something shiny. He focused the light and gasped as two disembodied eyes glared at him.
He jerked back, tripping over his axe. As he hit the cave floor, his flashlight flew from his hand, smacking the ground and going dark. “El Diablo!” he muttered as he stared at the hole in horror. He scrambled to his feet. “El Diablo!” he screamed as he ran down the narrow passage back to the surface. “El Diablo!”
Archaeology Professor James Acton was on his knees, carefully brushing dirt away from what appeared to be an intact clay pot. One of his students, working in the same grid, carefully sifted the soil for any small shards. Students in other grids, each cordoned off with twine staked at the corners, were painstakingly removing over five hundred years of earth, burying what Acton was now confident was an ancient Incan city.
This was the part of the job he loved—getting his hands dirty. Teaching in front of a class full of students was a close second, but taking those same students out of the environment they were familiar with, and sticking them in the middle of what was now nowhere, but where once an ancient civilization thrived, was indescribable.
The excitement on the young faces when they discovered something even as simple as a clay pot, brought joy to his heart each time, something he prayed would never grow old. His hunch the city was actually here had been proven several years ago when he and a single grad student had received funding to confirm if an ancient Spanish map was accurate.
And it had been.
He had wanted to stay, to tell the university to forward his mail here, to the middle of nowhere, but of course returned to begin the long fight for funding a real, long-term dig. And now they were here, half a dozen of his best students, funded by the University, various endowments, and some well-off parents of the lucky ones.
It was a shoestring budget, yet he didn’t care. What they were learning was invaluable, much of it routine, though some of it puzzling with no explanation as of yet. And that was what he lived for.
He sat back on his haunches, his grid forgotten as he gazed at their most puzzling find yet, not twenty feet away.
It makes no sense.
He leaned back and stretched when screams erupted from a nearby cave at the top of the embankment bordering the southern side of the site. He leaped to his feet, rushing toward the hillside. Garcia, one of their local hires, burst from the entrance and tumbled down the hill to the camp below, striking his head on a small rock.
“Señor Professor! El Diablo esta en la cueva! El Diablo is in the cave!”
Acton reached him as the terrified man’s eyes fluttered then shut, a nasty gash on his forehead oozing blood. “Get some water and a med kit over here, now!” Acton knelt beside the unconscious man, examining Garcia’s body for broken bones, and finding none. One of his students, Robbie Andrews, arrived with a canteen of water and the medical kit. Acton opened it as he eyed the now moaning Garcia.
He soaked a cloth in water, then began cleaning the wound. Garcia moaned louder as the cool liquid revived him, and gradually he came to, trying to sit up. Acton held him down.
“Drink,” he ordered, holding a canteen to Garcia’s lips. The still weak man drank gratefully, and when he had his fill, he pulled away. Acton handed the canteen to Robbie, then waved the rest of the gathered students away. “Let’s give Garcia some space, shall we?” The students moved off, disappointed, but his primary concern was for the health of their hired help, a man who had impressed Acton repeatedly over the past few weeks as he had taken on more duties, despite his grave reservations of disturbing “the ancestors.” Acton sat beside him and placed a hand on the man’s shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. “Now, tell me what you saw. And remember,” he said, looking down at Garcia with a reassuring smile, “you’re safe now.”
Garcia breathed a deep sigh, trying unsuccessfully to control his breathing, his chest still heaving. “Señor Professor, I see the Devil in the cave,” he said in his thick Peruvian accent, the fear still tingeing his voice despite Acton’s assurances of safety. It was clear the man’s superstitions had got the better of him, and it was something Acton had dealt with across the world. Superstitions were pervasive in all cultures, including Western, and especially so outside of the “First World.” It made hiring local help difficult at times, though the almighty dollar would usually win out.
Until one day something was stumbled upon that would send them into a panic, and the camp would suddenly find itself devoid of workers.
He feared if he couldn’t calm Garcia down, they might lose the limited help they managed to attract up to this remote location, which at the moment included only Garcia, two guards, and one driver who brought their supplies.
“Tell me exactly what happened.” Acton continued to smile as he pressed slightly harder on the gash, stemming the flow of blood.
“I was digging at the wall like you ask me to, and I finally get through—”
“You got through?” Acton and Robbie exchanged excited smiles. “What did you see?”
“El Diablo, I see El Diablo! I look through the hole, and I first could see nothing so I get my light and then I can see. I see two red eyes staring at me. It was the Devil, Señor. I swear! I run outta there.”
Acton was skeptical, to say the least, knowing Garcia’s superstitious nature. Whatever he had seen, however, was enough to send this poor man into a panic. And two red, glowing eyes, had to be something, perhaps a reflection off of some jewels. The thought of what Garcia might have found had his own heart racing, but for now he had to calm the man whose breathing had quickened its pace.
“Yes. Come, I show you if you not believe me!” pleaded Garcia.
The best way to calm him was to humor him—expressing any doubt in what he had seen would insult the man’s honor. Besides, regardless of what Garcia thought he had seen, Acton had no doubt he had seen something, and was as eager to find out what that might be as Garcia was to prove he wasn’t lying.
“No, you rest here. I’ll go and look myself.” Acton rose and started up the path leading to the cave entrance. He motioned for a couple of students to watch Garcia and for Robbie to follow him. “Grab some gear.” They soon arrived at the entrance and crawled through the narrow opening of the cave discovered by a couple of amorous students the day before, behind a thick growth of bushes. Once inside, the narrow passageway opened up, allowing them to walk upright, though single file, deeper into the damp, dripping cave. Two hundred feet in, they found the hole Garcia had been laboring at all day. Acton shone his flashlight through, coughing at the overwhelming stench. At first, he too saw nothing.
Then he gasped.
National Security Agency Headquarters Fort George G. Meade, Maryland
Echelon chewed through every phone call, e-mail, fax, and telex message sent either by land or satellite from its laboratory in the National Security Agency building. Its Dictionary watchlist was programmed to listen and search for certain hot words such as “bomb” or “anthrax.” Any such messages or calls were flagged for review, and depending on the priority of the words and number of hits in a particular conversation or sequence of communications, meant either immediately reviewed, or put on a file to be reviewed, possibly months later. The call from Peru at 17:52 Eastern Standard Time was immediately reviewed:
[CLASSIFICATION TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA PRIME]
[DICTIONARY HITS: CRYSTAL, SKULL, NEW YORK]
[SOURCE ILC INTERNATIONAL LEASE CARRIER INTSAT-ALPHA]
[CALL ORIGIN: LIMA, PERU, ROAMING CELLULAR PHONE 212-555-7723]
[CALL DESTINATION: NEW YORK, NY, USA, LAND LINE 212-555-8838]
[START OF TRANSCRIPT]
[CALLER1] “John, it’s me, Robbie. Can you hear me?”
[CALLER2] “Barely, man. Where are you?”
[CALLER1] “I’m still in Peru, on the dig with Professor Acton.”
[CALLER2] “Oh yeah? I didn’t think I’d hear from you until you got back. What’s up?”
[CALLER1] “The professor shut down the dig and sent us all to Lima for the night, so I thought I’d call and see how you and Dad are doing.”
[CALLER2] “We’re fine. Dad’s starting to recover from the stroke. I really wish you could be here, but he understands how important getting to work for Professor Acton is. How’re things going there? Why the shutdown?”
[CALLER1] “He found something. Something pretty cool, but we’re not allowed to talk about it. Only two of us have seen it.”
[CALLER2] “What is it?”
[CALLER1] “I’m not supposed to tell, John. If the professor found out, I’d be kicked off the dig!”
[CALLER2] “How would he find out? I’m your big brother, man, come on!”
[CALLER1] “Okay, okay. We found a CRYSTAL SKULL, perfectly preserved in a hidden chamber. It’s incredible, John, I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
[CALLER2] “A CRYSTAL SKULL? What the hell is that?”
[CALLER1] “According to the professor, a few of them have been found around the world, but nobody knows who made them. He was extremely excited when he first found it, but then he seemed to get scared.”
[CALLER1] “Yeah, I don’t know why. Maybe he doesn’t want to attract attention, what with the problems down here. Anyway, my cellphone is starting to die, so I’ll say goodbye. Tell Dad I love him and I’ll see him as soon as I’m back in NEW YORK.”
[CALLER2] “Okay, you be careful down there.”
[CALLER1] “I will, bye.”
“What a day!”
Steve Masters swirled his glass containing three fingers of an eighteen-year-old Ardmore single malt, the distinct aroma of smoke bringing back memories of his stay several years ago with his wife in Speyside, Scotland. He raised the glass, toasting the empty rear of his limo, and took a long drag of the harsh liquid. He loosened his tie and undid the top button of his shirt as his reward began its job, his entire body enjoying the effects. He leaned back into the plush leather and closed his eyes as he let a long sigh escape.
His phone rang.
He left his eyes closed, debating whether to take the call, but he had to—his job was too important to let them go unanswered. Though at the end of a long day like today, he yearned for what it must have been like decades ago when cellphones and car phones didn’t exist.
That’s what he needed, desperately. Downtime.
A second ring.
When he had agreed to take on this job for President Jackson, a longtime friend, he hadn’t realized how much work there’d be. And neither had his wife. She was tolerating it better than he had feared, and he took her with him on business trips whenever he could, scheduling an extra day or two of “alone time” when possible. Unfortunately, intelligence conferences, especially surrounding black ops as he was involved with, weren’t always held in the most hospitable of conditions.
He sighed and put the leaded Steuben crystal glass on the drink tray, and retrieved his phone from the breast pocket of his jacket that lay tossed on the seat beside him.
I can’t wait until Jackson’s administration is over and I can get fired.
No matter what he did while Jackson was President, his job was safe, for he was there for one specific task, one the American public could never know about, one even his own wife knew nothing about.
One handed down to him by his own father.
He pressed the talk button. “Masters.”
“Sir, we have an Umbra Gamma Prime document here for immediate review.”
“I’ll be right there.” He hung up the phone and pressed the button to lower the glass partition separating him from the driver. “Jerry, turn us around, I need to get back to the office, fast.” His chauffeur of many years radioed the escort vehicles as Masters raised the partition, picked up his glass, and gripped the overhead handhold.
The mini-motorcade’s lead Lincoln Navigator cut left, jumped the median, and blocked oncoming traffic. The Town Car limo locked up its brakes and followed, jostling its well-prepared VIP as the trailing Navigator cut across, assuming the role of lead vehicle. All three turned on their lights and sirens, leaving a trail of burnt rubber, smoke, and a dozen confused drivers in their wake.
Umbra Gamma Prime.
It was one of the highest classifications of Top Secret there was in his business. In fact, he had never had one cross his desk since he had taken the job, despite dealing with countless terrorist threats—both foreign and domestic—and having deployed teams around the world in secret.
Yet tonight, on a night when nothing was going on in the world he could think of that would warrant such a high classification, he was called back to read a file that couldn’t even leave his office due to the high level of security.
There was only one thing that might have triggered this precaution, and it had his heart racing the entire fifteen minutes it took to arrive.
“Sir, here’s the communiqué.” His aide took his jacket, then handed him the dossier, sealed and tied with a red and white ribbon reading “TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA PRIME—DIR SPC OPS EYES ONLY.”
“No interruptions.” His aide closed the door as Masters entered and headed for his desk. He sat, his leather-backed chair exhaling under him as he glanced around the large office to make sure he was alone. He removed a device resembling a small tape recorder from his top desk drawer. He pressed a button to activate the Radio Frequency Interference Generator, disrupting any bug in his office, which, despite the device’s effectiveness, was swept three times a day, and after any visitor. The Umbra Gamma Prime document in his hands, however, demanded every possible precaution against someone eavesdropping.
Breaking the seal, he opened the dossier and scanned the identified keywords. His eyes shot wide open as his suspicions were confirmed. He skimmed the conversation, then read it again carefully, making sure he hadn’t misinterpreted it. His heart slammed against his ribcage as he hit the intercom button on his phone. Static. Cursing, he turned off the jamming device then jabbed the button again. His aide answered.
“Get me Darbinger.”
White House Chief of Staff Lesley Darbinger jogged down the corridor leading to the Oval Office. He stopped before the door and took several gasping breaths.
This is ridiculous. I need to get back into shape.
He used to jog five miles a day, though not anymore. No more time.
But winded at 200 feet?
These days, he did more running in the office than outside.
And it clearly isn’t enough.
“Is he in?” he panted as he stepped into the outer office.
The fifty-something woman behind the desk looked up and stuck a pencil in the tight bun on top of her head. “Yes, sir.” She picked up the phone. “Mr. Darbinger to see you, Mr. President.” She hung up and motioned toward the door. “Go on in, Mr. Darbinger.” A Secret Service agent opened the door to the Oval Office, and Darbinger stepped through.
President Stewart Alfred Jackson sat behind his desk, reading a briefing paper. He tossed the folder on the oak desktop and laid his glasses down as Darbinger entered. They had met at Yale over thirty years ago, and had been close since. Darbinger had worked on his gubernatorial, senate and presidential campaigns, and with everything they had been through together over the years, he knew Jackson trusted him implicitly. He was his friend, his confidant, and his sounding board. He was the man he told all his secrets to. He was the man Jackson trusted more than his own wife.
And today, both of their lives were about to change, forever.
Jackson circled the desk and motioned to one of the leather couches. “What’s on your mind, Les?”
Darbinger sat and glanced around the office, making sure they were alone, and taking in the history represented by every object that adorned it at the same time. He leaned forward and lowered his voice, as he was about to add to that history. “Mr. President, I just had a conversation with the Director of Special Operations.”
Jackson sat on the opposite couch. “Steve Masters?”
“Yes, Mr. President.” Darbinger lowered his voice further. “He thinks they found it.”
Jackson leaned forward. “Found what?”
Darbinger steadied his breathing as his heart raced, shoving blood through his system at too quick a pace, the excitement and terror of the moment overwhelming. He inhaled deeply and stared into his friend’s eyes.
“The final missing skull.”
17th Street, Washington, DC
Billy Guthrie sat up in bed and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes as he looked around to see what had woken him. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary, though sunlight poured through the window. Too much sunlight for 6:00 a.m. A glance at his alarm clock showed a flashing 12:01.
“Shit!” He leaped out of bed as he realized he had been awoken by the beeping of nearly every electronic device in the apartment when the power came back on. Running to the dresser, he grabbed his Tag Heuer watch. 8:15. “Shit!”
He rushed to the bathroom and splashed some water on his face, then ran his wet fingers through his sandy-brown hair, trying to make it not too obvious he had skipped the shower. Swishing some mouthwash, he found a clean pair of slacks on the floor and thrust his legs in. Running back to the bathroom, he spat into the sink, grinned at the mirror to check his teeth for last night’s dinner, then pulled on a pair of socks from the floor. He grabbed the dress-shirt hanging on the back of the bathroom door he had planned to iron the night before—but had put off—and willed the wrinkles out with his hands. Tossing a tie around his neck and a blazer over his shoulder, he bolted from his apartment with his electric razor, shaving a weekend’s worth of growth off before his first day on the job.
This is all I need, to be late on my first damned day! Dad will kill me!
He hailed a cab and climbed in.
“Where to, buddy?” asked the cabbie in a thick Middle Eastern accent.
“The White House. Employee entrance.”
The cabbie glanced in his rearview mirror, eyes narrowing. “Aren’t you a little young to be working there?” He cranked the wheel, pulled a U-turn, and surged them toward the hallowed residence.
Billy shrugged, gripping the “Oh Jesus” bar, debating if he should put his seatbelt on. “Intern.”
“Ahh, that explains it.” The cabbie floored it, blasting through the red light. Billy’s eyes bulged as he yanked on the seatbelt too hard, the tensioner halting him in his haste. Easing back on the belt, he eventually got himself secured, though only minutes before they arrived. He shoved a few bills through to the driver and jumped out, rushing through security and toward the rally point for the new interns.
He skidded to a halt, gaping at a line zigzagging like an international arrivals area, threatening to spill out into the hallway if any more showed up. Surrounded by the excited buzz of dozens of young interns getting to know each other, he soon realized he needn’t have worried about being late his first day. Everyone was being fingerprinted, photographed, swabbed for DNA, and retinal scanned. Even a voice sample was taken.
Man, what’s next, a semen sample?
His watch beeped noon as he arrived at the front of the line.
“Name?” asked the bored clerk.
“William Augustus Guthrie.”
“Guthrie?” The clerk snapped his gaze up. “As in the former Speaker of the House?”
Billy nodded and lowered his voice. “Look, I’d kind of like to keep that quiet.”
The clerk grunted. “Yeah, good luck with that.” He waved him on. “Next!”
Billy moved down the line and placed his hand on an electronic palm scanner. Giggles from behind him drew his attention. Two girls in the line ogled him. They giggled again. He blushed. One of them pointed at his feet. Glancing down, he found his left pant leg partially tucked into his sock. A sock that didn’t match the other.
He quickly fixed his pants, resigned to having to go through the rest of the day with mismatched socks and a pair of co-workers who were aware of his predicament. He put some people between him and the girls as the last couple of interns who had been even later than him finished processing.
Then a tour he had been looking forward to for years, finally began.
He studied every room and corridor in awe, his chest pounding in excitement as the White House intern tour wound through the building. He had been here years before with his father, though had been too young to appreciate it. When the administration changed, his father didn’t take him back to the White House again. “When they’re voted out, and our people are in, then you can go back,” he recalled his father saying. That had taken eight years. Now he was back, but to work.
Eighteen years old, working in the White House. Shit yeah!
A voice from behind startled him out of his reverie. “Rough morning?”
He spun on his heel to see one of the girls who had been laughing at him earlier. Blushing again, he nodded. “Yeah, my power went out, so…you know?”
She extended her hand. “My name is Rachel.”
“Billy.” He shook her hand nervously, realizing he was as crimson as a lobster.
“Next time you do the laundry, Billy, you should match your socks after they dry. That way that doesn’t happen.” She pointed at his feet and laughed again, walking back to her friend who covered her own cackle with a hand.
They giggled some more, then Rachel said, “But he is kinda cute!” The other one agreed then laughed again as she tugged her friend toward the group that had moved on.
1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta Fort Bragg, North Carolina A.k.a. “The Unit”
Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson expertly flipped each of the several dozen burgers on the charcoal grill, while sweat glistened off his chiseled chest, partially revealed by a half-buttoned Hawaiian shirt. The aroma of grilled meat filled his nostrils, and his stomach growled.
I love barbecue.
It was a perfect summer day. The sun shone down out of a crystal clear sky, the light breeze taking the edge off the heat. As he flipped the final burger, something smacked him in the back of the head.
He swung around, ready to defend himself.
“Sorry, Mr. Dog, I didn’t mean to hit you.” The small boy grabbed the stray beach ball and ran back to the group of waiting kids.
“No problem, Bryson,” he called after him.
Mr. Dog. Now that’s funny.
His buddies in boot camp, well over a decade ago, had filled out his initials to “Big Dog.” At first, he couldn’t stand it, though eventually it grew on him, especially once it had been shortened to BD. And it was better than some of the other nicknames he’d heard over the years.
He now led Bravo Team, a group of the most highly trained black ops specialists the U.S. Military had to offer. The 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, a.k.a. Delta Force, had been created in the 1970’s as an answer to the growing problem of international terrorism. Since the Iran Hostage Crisis debacle—which if you asked insiders had more to do with political interference than poor training—they had served with distinction in many operations the American public knew nothing about. This was their lot in life—to do spectacular things, under the radar, for no credit, and the promise of complete deniability if something went wrong.
Dawson had served with Bravo Team for over seven years, and had been on missions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Serbia, the Sudan, Syria, Iran, and others. All had been successes in two ways. One, the mission was accomplished, and two, nobody knew they had been there. His men were fiercely loyal to him, and he to them, having been through hell together too many times to remember. All were NCO’s, Non-Commissioned Officers—sergeants of various stripes—command structure fairly loose among each team, though ultimately there was always one man in charge, and for now, it was him. The officers at their HQ planned the missions, the Non-Coms executed them.
Today was one of many family barbecues the team hosted behind the Unit in the secluded complex on Fort Bragg, where they could train away from the prying eyes of the public or regular forces. Normally they weren’t all able to be here, but today was a rare day. A roar of laughter erupted from one of the picnic tables, a reaction to a joke that likely couldn’t be repeated in polite company, a.k.a. the wives and girlfriends, who sat at another table talking among themselves. Dawson had only ever been married to the Unit, and the way his life was going, he expected it to remain that way.
He checked the burgers again.
He laid the buns out on the grill to toast them. More laughter from the table. He glanced over and saw the comedian was one of the two new guys, Sergeant Trip “Mickey” McDonald.
Speaking of bad nicknames.
Mickey’s huge ears stuck out of his head like Prince Charles’. One comparison to Mickey Mouse during training, and he had been saddled with “Mickey” since.
What’s so funny?
He loved manning the grill, though sometimes he missed just sitting at that table with his men, laughing and telling one of his blue jokes from his extensive repertoire.
Shit! The cheese.
He hastily peeled off slices from the stack next to the grill as Mickey laughed hard.
“So, what did BD do?”
Smitty, a long-time member of the team, gestured toward Dawson. “Well, you’d never believe it, but BD is a very chivalrous man.” This elicited several guffaws from the men, even a raised eyebrow from Dawson. “So anyway, this hostage just wouldn’t stop screaming. He kept telling her to shut-up, that he was there to rescue her, but she wouldn’t believe him.”
“Yeah, and she had taken one of those self-defense courses,” chimed in Master Sergeant Mike “Red” Belme, his second-in-command and best friend. “You can see where this is going, right?”
“Don’t tell me—”
“Yup, as soon as he cut her bindings, she hoofed him in the balls, kneed him in the nose, then ran out of the building screaming at the top of her lungs,” finished Smitty.
“Luckily, I’d already taken out the hostiles, so she was safe, but the local Yemini’s had no clue what she was saying,” explained Sergeant Carl “Niner” Sung, the Unit’s best sniper. Korean-American, he had earned his nickname in a bar fight years ago, a redneck calling him “slant-eyed.” Niner embarrassed him by slinging back a few of his own, including “Nine Iron.” With the bar laughing, the irate man took a swing. The ensuing brawl had resulted in several arrests—after the team had left. From then on, he had insisted his nickname be “Nine Iron,” which had been shortened to Niner over the years.
“She was half-naked in the middle of a bunch of burqa-clad women! The locals—” Red’s face now matched his nickname as he struggled to stifle his laughter. Losing the battle, he motioned to Smitty to continue.
“Yeah, the locals were about to start stoning her when BD comes stumbling out of the building she’d been held in, cupping his boys.”
“So he grabs her, throws her into this piece of shit Toyota truck we’d commandeered, and drives away,” said Red. “But the chick starts screaming again and tries to get out.”
“Yeah, but this time BD’s not havin’ any of it. He backhands her in the face and knocks her out cold!” said Niner.
“No shit!” laughed Niner. “I’m tellin’ ya, Mickey, I saw it through my scope. Out cold.”
Smitty nodded hard, his sunglasses falling off their perch on top of his head. “Yeah, so after we get picked up at the rendezvous, she’s nursing a bloody nose, and BD is nursing a set of sore balls. And you know what he said?”
Everyone at the table said in unison, “From now on, I don’t go anywhere without a cup!”
Dawson smiled as his men exploded in laughter.
And his boys twinged at the memory.
“Burgers are up!” he announced. Cheers from the kids preceded their stampede to the grill as he rationed the burgers onto Styrofoam plates. He was about to fill up a plate for Bryson when his cellphone rang.
He flipped it open. “Speak.”
“Mr. White, you’re needed.” The monotone voice signaled the imminent end of the afternoon’s festivities.
“Five minutes.” He snapped the phone shut and motioned to Red, his friend and comrade of over ten years. “I have to go, you take over.”
“No problem, BD.” Red took the lifter from Dawson’s hand and smiled at his boy Bryson as he held out his plate. “I’ll hold down the fort ’til you get back.”
“Thanks. Have the boys watch the beers, I have a funny feeling we’re going to be busy soon.”
Red nodded. “Will do.”
Dawson crossed the field to the parking lot and climbed in his prized 1964½ Mustang convertible in original Poppy Red. The engine roared to life with a turn of the key, and minutes later he was pulling into the HQ parking lot, wondering what the presumed mission would be and where.
Anywhere would be fantastic.
As he covered the short distance to the Colonel’s office, he hoped for one thing. That it was interesting. He wasn’t a big fan of surveillance missions—too much ass sitting. He preferred the adrenaline-fueled infiltration type missions, ones where hands got dirty, weapons got fired, and C4 was put to its intended use.
At the end of the day, he wanted to have done something useful for his country, something that would make a difference, even if the general public never realized it had happened.
He passed through the outer office, Maggie, the Colonel’s secretary, not there.
He knocked on the inner office door.
Dawson pulled the door open and stepped inside. “What’s up, sir?” he asked as he closed the door behind him.
Colonel Thomas Clancy, the head of Dawson’s unit, sat behind his desk, fishing a cigar out of an antique humidor occupying a prominent position on his workspace, exposing his one last vice. An impressive array of medals and awards decorated the walls, revealing a career that only recently involved a chair.
Never one for formality when within the confines of his office, Clancy grunted an acknowledgment as he ran the cigar under his nose, inhaling the intoxicating smell. “I don’t know.” He motioned to the chair in front of his desk. “Have a seat.”
“Thank you, sir.” Dawson sat. “You don’t know?”
“Your team was specifically requested.” Clancy snipped the tip off his cigar. “Beyond that, I have no idea. I’m out of the loop on this one, Sergeant Major.”
Dawson didn’t like the sound of that. Clancy was a commanding officer Dawson respected—not the rank and position, but the man. Whenever he was on a mission, Clancy had his back, but with the Colonel out of the loop—which was rare—he couldn’t trust he and his men wouldn’t be left hung out to dry should something go wrong.
He had asked for interesting, and it seemed like he may get it, the old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” coming to mind.
“When do I get briefed?”
“Now.” Clancy flicked his butane lighter and carefully lit the cigar, rapidly puffing until he was satisfied. Placing the lighter back on his desk, he took a long drag and exhaled, letting the smoke waft over his face, allowing him to enjoy the fragrance one more time. His ritual finished, he turned back to Dawson. “Report to the comm center and don’t report back to me until Control says to. Understood?”
Dawson rose and snapped to attention. “Yes, sir!”
Darbinger Residence Washington, DC
“What’s on your mind, dear?”
Lesley Darbinger glanced up at his wife of over twenty-five years, recognizing her concerned look. Nora knew him well enough to know something was wrong, and despite his best efforts, he was unable to hide this afternoon’s news.
“Anything you can talk about?”
Darbinger swirled the cognac in his glass, watching the viscous fluid stick to the edges.
He looked up and smiled. “Oh, nothing wrong,” he reassured her. “Just finishing up some old business.” He knew damned well she would read right through the lie. Besides, cognac this early in the day was always a dead giveaway to something being wrong. Jackson had sent him home shortly after the news had been delivered, the President himself canceling all of his appointments for the rest of the day. Her joy at seeing him home early—something rare these past few years—had been short-lived, his gloom obvious.
He was tired of this business. It wasn’t his, it was never meant to be. He had merely joined in something his best friend had thought important. He would be lying to say what he had become involved with for friendship’s sake hadn’t become important to him as well—very important—but it had never been all-consuming as it was for Jackson.
For Jackson, it was an obsession.
“Old business?” She frowned and sat beside him. “You don’t mean—”
He cut her off with his finger. “Remember, we don’t say their name. Ever.”
He could see the color drain from her face as she nodded, a fear clouding her eyes he hadn’t seen in years, a fear that was one of his few true regrets in life. He should have never told her all those years ago why he had been troubled, yet he had. After all, she was his wife, and she deserved to know what was bothering her husband. She had understood, never truly believing, though when the rift had come between Jackson and his former masters, and Jackson’s actions had put their collective lives at risk, she had been shaken to her core.
And he didn’t blame her.
“Are we going to be okay?”
His heart ached as he saw the fear, her bottom lip trembling slightly as she asked the question. He smiled, trying to convey confidence, strength—neither of which he had at the moment. “They can’t touch us now.” He patted her hand. “But a thirty-year journey may finally be about to end.”
“You promised me it was over before, Lesley.” Her tone was firm. “After that Smithsonian incident, you promised me. I don’t want to go through that again.”
It was one of the few lies he had ever told her, telling her it was over, that he had left that part of his life behind. Yet he knew deep down she didn’t believe him, though like a good partner, had indulged the lie, realizing it was told for her benefit, to try and mollify her fears.
But it was still a lie.
“Like I said,” he repeated, “they can’t touch us now.”
She rose and left him alone, the fear and anger in her posture evident as his thoughts drifted to the Smithsonian incident that had changed their lives almost ten years ago.
He sighed, draining his glass.
Ten years of lies and deceit might finally be coming to an end.
The Unit Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Burt Dawson didn’t have much time to pull his thoughts together. His briefing from Control was true to the word—brief. This was often the case in his business, so it didn’t raise any red flags. He would still rather be reporting to Colonel Clancy, though apparently the secrecy of this op was so tight, even their regular Ops Center wouldn’t be used, the mission instead controlled from elsewhere. Where, he wasn’t privy too. All he needed to know was that his team’s comms would all be patched through to this secret location.
That meant they would be cut off from those he trusted at the Unit.
Again, unusual, though not unheard of.
What Control had told him could be seen as justification for all the secrecy. Apparently, a homegrown terror cell had stolen a highly classified DARPA project during transport, killing four guards in the process. The perpetrators had fled the country to a training camp they had set up in Peru, and intercepted chatter suggested they were planning multiple attacks on American targets around the world and at home.
Their orders: infiltrate the training camp, recover the stolen item, interrogate the prisoners, and once identified, eliminate them if they were on the President’s Termination List.
A straightforward mission he had done dozens of times, if not more. The difference this time were the terrorists. All apple pie eating American men and women—mostly university students who had fallen under the spell of a madman named Professor James Acton.
Dawson’s orders for Acton were different. Once the item was retrieved, Acton was to be executed immediately—he was already confirmed on the Termination List.
Dawson wasn’t sure how he felt about the mission—he had even asked if Control would rather the targets be captured and returned to the United States for prosecution. The suggestion had been angrily shot down, the orders reiterated. The only explanation Dawson had for the reaction was that what they had stolen was too secret for them to remain alive now that they had seen it. His only problem with the orders was the age of the targets.
Remember 9/11 and how young those hijackers were.
He sometimes had to remind himself the bad guys weren’t always men who had experienced enough of life to know they didn’t like it. Too often today, it was young people who were still popping pimples and hoping to pop cherries that were pulled into extremist activities.
Normally it was foreign nationals they targeted, but with the President now having executive power to target and eliminate Americans on foreign soil, this would be a first for him and his team.
It was sickening.
As he pulled up to the Unit and watched the young kids running around playing, he couldn’t help wonder if some bastard in their future, like this Professor Acton, would corrupt their young, innocent minds, and have them hating the very country their fathers were fighting to protect.
Professor Acton is mine.
He parked, not looking forward to what he was about to do. He strode up to the party and noticed a couple of burgers still warming on the grill. Red walked up to him.
“Hey, BD, burger?”
Dawson nodded, and Red put one together. Nicknamed for the red hair he shaved off with a bowie knife whenever a hint of it showed, Red was the second highest ranking member of Bravo Team, Dawson’s second-in-command, and his best friend of almost a decade. Dawson had been named godfather to Red’s son Bryson, and spent many a holiday dinner at the Belme household as part of their family.
Which meant Red knew him too well. Red’s eyebrows narrowed as he handed over the burger. “What’s up?”
Dawson took a monster bite, realizing how hungry he was. “We’ve got a mission,” he finally managed after swallowing enough to talk without revealing the ongoing mastication process.
Red turned toward the group, now in the third inning of a softball game. “When do we leave?”
“Okay, I’ll break the news.”
Dawson stopped his friend. “No, I’ll do it. Let the kids blame me and not Bryson’s dad.” Red smiled gratefully, but stayed by Dawson’s side as he walked into the group of operators, better halves, and children.
“Hate to break up the party, folks, but we’ve been called up.” A string of “aws” came from the kids, this not the first time they had been disappointed. He hated it whenever this happened, which in today’s insane world was too often. His men gave hugs to their families and loved ones, then headed into the Unit to be briefed.
Somewhere Over the Pacific Coast
The Chinook MH-47E helicopter raced toward the Peruvian coastline, its two Textron Lycoming engines pumping out four thousand shaft-horsepower, and propelling it at over 180 miles per hour as Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson, mission-designate Bravo One, took a knee amidst his men. He inhaled deeply through his nose, drawing in the intoxicating smell of the fumes, a smell he would never tire of. His men leaned in, each cocking an ear for their final briefing.
“This is the primary target,” Dawson bellowed over the thunder of the rotors and the rattling of the hold. He held out a photo labeled ‘Professor James Acton.’ “He must be captured alive so we can recover the item. Eliminate the guards and any other resistance.”
“What’s the item?” asked Mickey.
“Need to know.”
Dawson glanced at Mickey for a brief second. Mickey had hesitated to carry out an order on the last mission, and an enemy combatant had got the drop on Red, his friend taking a round in the vest. He survived, though three inches higher and he would have been dead. It hadn’t been necessary to chew Mickey out, he had learned his lesson. He’d never hesitate or question orders again.
“The primary objective is to capture the target alive and recover the item. Video will be sent to Control, and they’ll determine if the remaining targets are on the Termination List. Intel has them as members of a domestic terrorist cell. This Professor Acton is their leader. Apparently, he’s convinced these students to join him in his cause. Remember, just because the hostiles are young, doesn’t mean they’re innocent. They’ve already killed four of our own. The only difference from any other mission is this time they’re American, but no less a risk than any other Islamic fundamentalist cell we’ve taken out before. These people hate their country and our way of life. They mean to destroy it from within, and we’re here to stop that. If they’re on the Termination List, they’ll be eliminated. According to UAV overflights, the camp is lightly guarded.” He glanced at Niner. “Overseer, you’ll be dropped one mile from the camp. You’ll eliminate the guards, then we’ll move in.” He looked at his men. “Understood?”
“Yes, Sergeant Major!” they answered in unison.
“Five minutes to Overseer drop,” the pilot announced over the comm.