Our Sacred Honor (A Luke Stone Thriller—Book 6) - Jack Mars - ebook
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“One of the best thrillers I have read this year. The plot is intelligent and will keep you hooked from the beginning. The author did a superb job creating a set of characters who are fully developed and very much enjoyable. I can hardly wait for the sequel.”--Books and Movie Reviews, Roberto Mattos (re Any Means Necessary)OUR SACRED HONOR is book #6 in the bestselling Luke Stone thriller series, which begins with ANY MEANS NECESSARY (book #1), a free download with over 500 five star reviews!When China bankrupts the U.S. economy by calling in its debt and by shutting down the South China Sea, Americans are desperate for radical change. President Susan Hopkins, running for re-election, is floored as she watches the returns come in. Her rival, a madman senator from Alabama who ran on the promise to deport all Chinese and to nuke China’s ships out of the South China Sea, has, inconceivably, won.President Hopkins, though, knows she cannot yield power. To do so would be to spark World War Three.Knowing the election was stolen, President Hopkins needs 48 hours to prove it, and to stop the escalating war games with the Chinese. With no one left to turn to, she summons Luke Stone, the former head of an elite FBI para-military team. The stakes could not be higher as she commands him to save America from its greatest threat: its own President Elect.Yet as one shocking twist follows another, it may, even for Luke Stone, be too late.A political thriller with non-stop action, dramatic international settings and heart-pounding suspense, OUR SACRED HONOR is book #6 in the bestselling and critically-acclaimed Luke Stone series, an explosive new series that will leave you turning pages late into the night. “Thriller writing at its best. Thriller enthusiasts who relish the precise execution of an international thriller, but who seek the psychological depth and believability of a protagonist who simultaneously fields professional and personal life challenges, will find this a gripping story that's hard to put down.”--Midwest Book Review, Diane Donovan (regarding Any Means Necessary)Book #7 in the Luke Stone series will be available soon.

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O U R   S A C R E D   H O N O R

(A LUKE STONE THRILLER—BOOK 6)

J A C K   M A R S

Jack Mars

Jack Mars is the USA Today bestselling author of the LUKE STONE thriller series, which include the suspense thrillers ANY MEANS NECESSARY (book #1), OATH OF OFFICE (book #2), SITUATION ROOM (book #3), OPPOSE ANY FOE (book #4), PRESIDENT ELECT (book #5), OUR SACRED HONOR (book #6), and HOUSE DIVIDED (book #7).

Jack loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.Jackmarsauthor.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!

Copyright © 2017 by Jack Mars. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. Jacket image Copyright evantravels, used under license from Shutterstock.com.

BOOKS BY JACK MARS

LUKE STONE THRILLER SERIES

ANY MEANS NECESSARY (Book #1)

OATH OF OFFICE (Book #2)

SITUATION ROOM (Book #3)

OPPOSE ANY FOE (Book #4)

PRESIDENT ELECT (Book #5)

OUR SACRED HONOR (Book #6)

Listen to the LUKE STONE THRILLER series in audio book format!

Now available on:

Amazon

Audible

CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY ONE

CHAPTER TWENTY TWO

CHAPTER TWENTY THREE

CHAPTER TWENTY FOUR

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE

CHAPTER TWENTY SIX

CHAPTER TWENTY SEVEN

CHAPTER TWENTY EIGHT

CHAPTER TWENTY NINE

CHAPTER THIRTY

CHAPTER THIRTY ONE

CHAPTER THIRTY TWO

CHAPTER THIRTY THREE

CHAPTER THIRTY FOUR

CHAPTER THIRTY FIVE

CHAPTER THIRTY SIX

CHAPTER THIRTY SEVEN

CHAPTER THIRTY EIGHT

CHAPTER THIRTY NINE

CHAPTER FORTY

CHAPTER FORTY ONE

CHAPTER FORTY TWO

CHAPTER FORTY THREE

CHAPTER FORTY FOUR

CHAPTER FORTY FIVE

CHAPTER FORTY SIX

“…we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Thomas Jefferson

CHAPTER ONE

December 9th

11:45 p.m. Lebanon Time (4:45 p.m. Eastern Standard Time)

Southern Lebanon

“Praise God,” the young man said. “Praise Him. Praise Him.”

He took a long drag from his cigarette, his hand shaking as he reached to his mouth. He hadn’t eaten in twelve hours. For the past four hours, the world around him had been entirely black. He was a truck driver, skilled at driving the biggest rigs, and he had driven this one across the border from Syria, then through the hilly Lebanese countryside, moving slow on winding roads, lights off the entire way.

It was a dangerous drive. The sky was filled with drones, with helicopters, with spy planes, and with bombers—Russian, American, and Israeli. Any one of these could become interested in this truck. Any one of these could decide to destroy the truck, and do so effortlessly. He drove the entire way expecting that at any moment, a missile would hit him without warning, rendering him a flaming skeleton sitting inside a burned out steel relic.

Now he had just pulled the truck up a long, narrow path and parked it under an awning. The awning, held up with wooden legs, was made to look from the sky like typical forest cover—in fact, the top of it was covered with dense brush. Its location was right where they had said it would be.

He turned the truck off, the engine farting and belching, black smoke pouring from a stack on the driver’s side as the thing shut itself down. He opened the door to the cab and climbed down. As soon as he did so, a squad of heavily armed men materialized like ghosts, emerging from the surrounding woods.

“As salaam alaikum,” the young truck driver said as they approached.

“Wa alaikum salaam,” the militia leader said. He was tall and burly, with a thick black beard and dark eyes. His face was hard—there was no compassion in it. He gestured at the truck. “Is this it?”

The young man took another shaky drag from his cigarette. No, he almost said. Some other truck is it. This one is nothing.

“Yes,” he said instead.

“You’re late,” the militia leader said.

The young man shrugged. “You should have driven in that case.”

The leader stared at the truck. It looked like a typical tractor-trailer—perhaps something carrying lumber, or furniture, or foodstuffs. But it wasn’t. The militiamen went right to work on it, two climbing the back ladder to the top, two kneeling near the bottom. Each man had a battery-powered screwdriver.

Moving quickly, they removed the screws one by one that held the tractor-trailer fiction together. Within moments, they pulled a large piece of aluminum sheet metal off the side. A moment later, they pulled a narrower sheet off the back. Then they were working on the other side, where the driver could no longer see them.

He turned and looked out at the nighttime hillsides and forest. Across the darkness, he could see the lights of a village twinkling several miles away. Beautiful country. He was very glad to be here. His job was done. He was not a militiaman. He was a truck driver. They had paid him to go across the border and pick up this truck. 

He was also not from this region—he lived far to the north. He had no idea what arrangements these men had made for his return home, but he didn’t care. Rid of the infernal machine he had just driven, he would gladly walk from here.

Headlights were coming up the narrow rutted road, a whole series of them. Seconds later, a line of three black Mercedes SUVs appeared. The doors opened in unison and gunmen poured from each car. Each man carried a heavy rifle or machine gun. The rear door of the middle car opened last.

A heavyset man with a salt-and-pepper beard and glasses pulled himself from the SUV. He leaned on a knobby wooden stick and walked with a pronounced limp—the residue of a car bomb attempt on the man’s life two years ago.

The young driver recognized the man instantly—he was certainly the most famous man in Lebanon, and well known throughout the world. His name was Abba Qassem, and he was the absolute leader of Hezbollah. His authority—in matters of military operations, social programs, relations with foreign governments, crime and punishment, life and death—was unquestioned.

His presence made the driver nervous. It came on suddenly, like a stomach sickness. There were the nerves that came with meeting any celebrity, yes. But there was more to it than that. Qassem being here meant that this truck—whatever it might be—was important. Much more important than the driver had realized.

Qassem hobbled to the truck driver, surrounded by his bodyguards, and gave him an awkward hug.

“My brother,” he said. “You are the driver?”

“Yes.”

“Allah will reward you.”

“Thank you, Sayyid,” the driver said, calling him by a title of honor, suggesting that Qassem was a direct descendent of Mohammed himself. The driver was hardly a devout Muslim, but people like Qassem seemed to enjoy that sort of thing.

They turned together. The men had already finished removing the sheet metal covering from the truck. Now the real truck was revealed. The front of it was much as it had appeared to be—the cab of a trailer truck, painted a deep green color. The long rear of the truck was a flat, two-cylinder missile launch platform. Resting inside each of the launch cylinders was a large silver missile, shiny and metallic.

The two parts of the truck were separate and independent of each other, but were attached by a hydraulic system in the middle, and steel chains on either side. That explained why the truck had been difficult to control—the rear section was not secured to the front as tightly as the driver might have chosen.

“A transporter-erector-launcher, they call it,” Qassem said, explaining to the driver what he had just driven here. “And just one of many the Perfect One has seen fit to bring us.”

“Yes?” the driver said.

Qassem nodded. “Oh yes.”

“And the missiles?”

Qassem smiled. It was beatific and calm, the smile of a saint. “Very advanced weaponry. Long distance. As accurate as anything in this world. More powerful than we have ever known before. God willing, we will use these weapons to bring our enemies to their knees.”

“Israel?” the driver said. He nearly choked on the word. The urge came upon him to start walking north right this moment.

Qassem put a hand on the driver’s shoulder. “God is great, my brother. God is great. Very soon, everyone will know exactly how great.”

He stepped away, limping toward the missile launcher. The driver watched him go. He took one last drag on his cigarette, which he had smoked down to the nub. He was feeling a little better, calmer. This job was over. These maniacs could start another war if they wanted—it likely wouldn’t reach the north.

Qassem turned around then and looked at him. “Brother,” he said.

“Yes?”

“These missiles are a secret, you know. No one can hear of them.”

The driver nodded. “Of course.”

“You have friends, family?”

The driver smiled. “I do. A wife, three children. Little ones. I still have my mother. I am well known in my village and the nearby areas. I have played the violinsince I was very young, and everyone demands a song from me.”

He paused. “It’s a full life.”

The sayyid nodded, a little sadly.

“Allah will reward you.”

The driver didn’t like the sound of that. It was the second time Qassem had mentioned such a reward. “Yes. Thank you.” 

Near Qassem, two big men took rifles down from their shoulders. A second later, they held them ready, aimed at the driver.

The driver barely moved. This didn’t seem right. It was happening so fast. His heart pounded in his ears. He could not feel his legs. Or his arms. Even his lips were numb. For a second, he tried to think of anything he might have done to offend them. Nothing. He had done nothing. All he had done was bring the truck here.

The truck… was a secret.

“Wait,” he said. “Wait! I won’t tell anyone.”

Qassem shook his head now. “The All-Knowing has seen your good work. He will open the gates of Paradise to you this very evening. This is my promise to you. This is my prayer.”

Much too late, the driver turned to run.

An instant later, he heard the loud CRACK as the first gun fired.

And he realized, as the ground came rushing up to meet him, that his entire life had been in vain.

CHAPTER TWO

December 11

9:01 a.m. Eastern Standard Time

The Oval Office

The White House, Washington, DC

Susan Hopkins almost couldn’t believe what she was watching.

She stood on the carpet in the sitting area of the Oval Office—the comfortable high-backed chairs had been removed for this morning’s festivities. Thirty people packed the room. Kurt Kimball and Kat Lopez stood near her, as well as Haley Lawrence, her Secretary of Defense.

The White House Residence staff were all here at her insistence, the chef, the servers, the domestic staff, mingling among other invited guests—the directors of the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Park Service, to name a few. A handful of news media personalities were here, as well as two or three carefully selected camera people. There were many Secret Service agents, lining the walls and peppered among the crowd.

On a large TV monitor mounted near the far wall, Stephen Lief, a man whom Susan could expect to never see in the flesh until her term as President was over, was about to take the Vice Presidential Oath of Office. Stephen was late middle-aged, owlish in round glasses, hair gray and thinning and receding across the top of his skull like an army in disordered retreat. He had a vaguely pear-shaped body, hidden inside a three-thousand-dollar blue pinstriped Armani suit.

Susan had known Stephen a long time. He would have been her main competition in the most recent election, if Jeff Monroe hadn’t interceded. Before that, in her Senate days, he was the loyal opposition across the aisle from her, a moderate conservative, unremarkable—pig-headed but not deranged. And he was a nice man.

But he was also the wrong party, and she had taken a lot of heated criticism from liberal quarters for that. He was landed aristocracy, old money—a Mayflower person, the closest thing that America had to nobility. At one time, he had seemed to think that becoming President was his birthright. Not Susan’s type—entitled aristocrats tended to lack the common touch that helped you connect with the people you were supposedly there to serve.

It was a measure of how deeply Luke Stone had gotten inside her skin that she considered Stephen Lief at all. He was Stone’s idea. Stone had brought it up to her playfully, while the two were lying together in her big Presidential bed. She had been pondering out loud about possible Veep candidates, and then Stone said:

“Why not Stephen Lief?”

She had almost laughed. “Stone! Stephen Lief? Come on.”

“No, I mean it,” he said.

He was lying on his side. His nude body was thin but rock hard, chiseled, and covered with scars. Thick bandaging still covered his recent bullet wound—it was molded to his torso along the left side. The various wounds didn’t bother her—they made him sexier, more dangerous. His dark blue eyes watched her from deep inside his weathered Marlboro Man face, half a mischievous smile on his lips.

“You’re beautiful, Stone. Like an ancient Greek statue, uh, wearing a bandage. But maybe you better let me do the thinking. You can just recline there, looking pretty.”

“I interviewed him at his farm down in Florida,” Stone said. “I was asking him what he knew about Jefferson Monroe and election fraud. He came clean to me very quickly. And he’s good with horses. Gentle. That has to count for something.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Susan said. “The next time I’m looking for a ranch hand.”

Stone shook his head, but kept smiling. “The country is fractured, Susan. Recent events have made the feelings worse than ever. You’re still doing okay, but Congress has the lowest approval ratings in American history. If you can believe the polls, then politicians, the Taliban, and the Church of Satan all rate well with a similar percentage of Americans. Lawyers, the IRS, and the Italian Mafia have much higher approval numbers.”

“And you say that because…”

“Because what the American people want now is for right and left, liberal and conservative, to come together a little bit and start to get some things done on behalf of this country. The roads and bridges need to be rebuilt, the train system belongs in a museum, the public schools are falling apart, and we haven’t built a new major airport in almost thirty years. We’re ranked thirty-second in healthcare, Susan. That’s low. Can there really be thirty-one other countries ahead of us? Because I tell you, I’ve been around the world, and I run out of good countries at twenty-one or twenty-two. That puts us behind a bunch of bad ones.”

She sighed. “If we had some buy-in from conservatives, we might be able to get my infrastructure package through…”

He tapped her forehead. “Now you’re using your noodle. Lief did eighteen years in the Senate. He knows the game as well as anybody.”

“I thought politics wasn’t your thing,” she said.

“It’s not.”

She shook her head. “That’s what scares me.”

He started moving toward her. “Don’t be scared. I’ll tell you what is my thing.”

“Do tell.”

“Getting physical,” he said. “With someone like you.”

Now she shook the memories away, a ghost of a smile on her face. She had drifted there for a bit. On the TV monitor, Stephen Lief was getting ready to take his oath. It was happening in her old study at the Naval Observatory. She remembered the room and the house well. It was the beautiful, turreted and gabled Queen Anne–style 1850s mansion on the grounds of the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. For decades, it had been the official residence of the Vice President of the United States.

She used to stand at the big bay window that was visible on the monitor, staring out at the beautiful rolling lawns of the Naval Observatory campus. The afternoon sun would come through that window, playing incredible games with light and shadow. For five years, she had lived in that house as Vice President. She’d loved it there, and would move back in a heartbeat if she could.

In the old days, in the afternoons and evenings, she would go out jogging on the Observatory grounds with her Secret Service men. Those years were a time of optimism, of stirring speeches, of meeting and greeting thousands of hopeful Americans. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Susan sighed. Her mind wandered. She remembered the day of the Mount Weather attack, the atrocity that had catapulted her out of her happy life as Vice President and into the raging tumult of the past few years.

She shook her head. No thank you. She would not think about that day.

Through the looking glass, on a small dais, two men and a woman stood. Photographers milled around like gnats, snapping pictures of them.

One of the men on the dais was short and bald. He wore a long robe. He was Clarence Warren, Chief Justice of the United States. The woman’s name was Judy Lief. She wore a bright blue suit. She was smiling ear to ear and holding a Bible open in her hands. Her husband, Stephen, placed his left hand on the Bible. His right hand was raised. Lief was often thought of dour, but even he was smiling a little.

“I, Stephen Douglas Lief,” he said, “do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”

“That I will bear true faith…” Judge Warren prompted.

“That I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same,” Lief said. “That I take this obligation freely, and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office which I am about to enter.”

“So help me God,” Judge Warren said.

“So help me God,” Lief said.

An image appeared in Susan’s mind—a ghost from the recent past. Marybeth Horning, the last person to take that oath. She had been a mentor to Susan in the Senate, and something of a mentor as Vice President. With her thin, small frame and her big glasses, she looked like a mouse, but she roared like a lion.

Then she was shot down and killed because of… what? Her liberal politics, you might say, but that wasn’t true. The people who killed her hadn’t cared about policy differences—all they cared about was power.

Susan hoped the country could move past that now. She watched Stephen on the TV monitor, embracing his family and other well-wishers.

Did she trust this man? She didn’t know.

Would he try to have her killed?

No. She didn’t think so. He had more integrity than that. She had never known him to be underhanded during her time in the Senate. She supposed that was a start—she had a Vice President who wouldn’t try to kill her.

She pictured reporters from the New York Times and the Washington Post asking questions: “What do you like about Stephen Lief as your new Vice President?”

“Well, he’s not going to kill me. I feel pretty good about that.”

Then Kat Lopez was at her side.

“Uh, Susan? Let’s get you over to the microphones so you can congratulate Vice President Lief and give him a few words of encouragement.”

Susan snapped out of her reverie. “Of course. That’s a good idea. He can probably use them.”

CHAPTER THREE

11:16 p.m. Israel Time (4:16 p.m. Eastern Standard Time)

The Blue Line, Israel-Lebanon Border

“Listen not to the liars, to the unbelievers,” the boy of seventeen whispered.

He took a deep breath.

“Strive against them with the utmost effort. Fight against them so that Allah will punish them by your hands and disgrace them and give you victory over them.”

The boy was as battle-hardened as they came. At fifteen, he had left his home and family and joined the Army of God. He had crossed into Syria and spent the past two years fighting street-to-street, face-to-face, and sometimes hand-to-hand, against the apostates of Daesh, what the westerners called ISIS.

The Daesh were unafraid to die—indeed, they welcomed death. Many of them were older Chechens and Iraqis, very hard to kill. The early days of opposing them had been a nightmare, but the boy had survived. In two years, he had fought many battles and killed many men. And he had learned much about war.

Now he stood in the black dark on a hillside in northern Israel. He balanced an anti-tank rocket launcher on his right shoulder. In his younger days, a heavy rocket like this would drill into his shoulder and after a short time, his bones would begin to ache. But he was stronger now. The weight of it no longer made much impression on him.

There was a small stand of trees around him, and very nearby, a group of commandos were on the ground, watching the roadway below them.

“Let those who fight in the way of Allah sell the life of this world for the other,” he said, very low, under his breath. “He who fights in the way of Allah, be he slain or be he victorious, he shall receive a vast reward.”

“Abu!” someone whispered fiercely.

“Yes.” His own voice was calm.

“Shut up!”

Abu took a deep breath and let the exhale slowly come out.

He was an expert with the anti-tank rocket. He had fired so many of these, and he had become so accurate with them, that he was now a very valuable man. That was something he had learned about war. The longer you lived, the more skills you amassed, and the better you became at fighting. The better you became, the more valuable you were, and ever more likely to remain alive. He had known many who didn’t survive long in combat—a week, ten days. He had met one who died on the first day. If only they could last a month, things would start to become clearer to—

“Abu!” the voice hissed.

He nodded. “Yes.”

“Ready? They’re coming.”

“Okay.”

He went about his business, relaxed, almost as if he were just practicing. He hefted the rocket launcher and unfolded the stock. His placed his left hand along the length of the barrel, lightly, lightly, until the target came into view. You didn’t want your grip too firm, too soon. The index finger of his right hand caressed the trigger mechanism. He put the gun sight near his face, but not to his eye. He liked to have his eyes free until the last moment, so he could acquire the entire picture before focusing on the details. His knees bent slightly, his back ever-so-slightly arched.

He could see light from the convoy now, behind the hillside to his right, approaching along the road. The lights reached upward, casting strange shadows. A few seconds later, he could hear the rumble of the engines.

He took another deep breath.

“Steady…” a stern voice said. “Steady.”

“Lord Allah,” Abu said, his words coming quickly now, and louder than before. “Guide my hands and my eyes. Let me bring death to your enemies, in your name and in the name of your most beloved prophet Mohammed, and all the great prophets in all times.”

The first jeep came around the bend. The round headlights were clear now, cutting through the nighttime mist.

The boy Abu instantly became rigid under the weight of the heavy gun. He put his right eye to the sight. The vehicles in the line appeared, large, like he could reach out and touch them. His finger tightened on the trigger. The breath caught in his throat. He was no longer a boy with a rocket launcher—he and the launcher melded together, becoming one entity, a killing machine.

All around his feet, men moved like snakes, crawling toward the roadway.

“Steady,” the voice said again. “The second car, you understand?”

“Yes.”

In his gun sight, the second jeep was RIGHT THERE. He could see the silhouettes of the people inside it. 

“It’s easy,” he whispered. “It’s so easy… Steady…”

Two seconds passed, Abu slowly sweeping the rocket launcher from right to left, following the target, never wavering.

“FIRE!”

* * *

For Avraham Gold, this was the part he hated.

Hate was the wrong word. He feared it. Any second now, coming right up.

He always talked here. He talked too much. He felt that he would blurt anything, just to get past this place. He took a long drag from his cigarette—against the rules to smoke on patrol, but it was the only thing that relaxed him.

“Leave Israel?” he said. “Never! Israel is my home, now and forever. I will travel abroad, certainly, but leave? How could I? We are called by God to live here. This is the Holy Land. This is the land that was promised.”

Avraham was twenty years old, a corporal in the Israeli Defense Forces. His grandparents were Germans who had survived the Holocaust. He believed every word that he said. But it still sounded hollow to his ears, like a corny pro-settler TV commercial.

He was at the wheel of the jeep, driving the third in a line of three. He glanced at the girl sitting next to him. Daria. God, she’s beautiful!

Even with her close-cropped hair, even with her body covered primly in her uniform. It was her smile. It would light up the sky. And her long eyelashes—like a cat.

She had no business being up here, in this… no-man’s-land. Especially with her views. She was a liberal. There shouldn’t be any liberals in the IDF, Avraham had decided. They were useless. And Daria was worse than a liberal. She was…

“I don’t believe in your God,” she said simply. “You know that.”

Now Avraham smiled. “I know, and when you get out of the army, you’re going to—”

She finished the thought for him. “Move to Brooklyn, that’s right. My cousin owns a moving company.”

He almost laughed, despite his nerves. “You’re a skinny girl to carry couches and pianos up and down flights of stairs.”

“I’m stronger than you might—”

Just then, the radio screeched. “Abel Patrol. Come in, Abel Patrol.” 

He picked up the receiver. “Abel.”

“Whereabouts?” came the tinny voice.

“Just entering Sector Nine as we speak.”

“Right on time. Okay. Eyes sharp.”

“Yes, sir,” Avraham said. He clicked off the receiver and glanced at Daria.

She shook her head. “If it’s so worrisome, why don’t they do something about it?”

He shrugged. “It’s the military. They’ll fix it just as soon as something terrible happens.”

The problem was right up ahead. The convoy was moving east to west along the narrow ribbon of roadway. To their right was a stand of dense, deep forest—it began fifty meters from the road. The IDF had cleared the land right to the border. Where those woods began was Lebanon.

To their left were three steep, green hills. Not mountains, really, but neither were they rolling hills. They were abrupt, and sheer. The roadway wrapped around and behind the hills, and for just a moment, radio communications were tenuous, and the convoys were vulnerable.

IDF command had been talking about those hills for over a year. It had to be the hills. They couldn’t clear out the forest because it was Lebanese territory—it would cause an international incident. So for a while, they were going to dynamite the hills. Then they were going to build a guard tower atop one of them. Both plans were deemed unsuitable. Dynamiting the hills meant the road would have to be temporarily rerouted away from the border. And a guard tower would be under constant threat of attack.

No, the best thing to do was run patrols between the hills and the forest night and day and just hope for the best.

“Watch those woods,” Avraham said. “Eyes sharp.”

He realized he had just repeated the exact same words as the commander. What a fool! He glanced at Daria again. Her heavy rifle lay alongside her thin frame. She giggled and shook her head, her face turning red.

In the darkness ahead, a flash of light erupted from their left.

It slammed into the middle jeep, twenty meters in front of them. The car exploded, spun to its left, and rolled. The car burned, the occupants already incinerated.

Avraham stomped on the brakes, but too late. He skidded into the burning vehicle.

Beside him, Daria screamed.

They had attacked from the wrong side—the hill side. There was no cover over there. It was inside Israel.

There was no time to speak, no time to give Daria a command.

Gunfire came from both sides now. Machine gun fire raked his door. DUNK-DUNK-DUNK-DUNK-DUNK. His window shattered, spraying glass in on him. At least one of the bullets had pierced the armor. He was hit. He looked down at his side—there was a darkness, growing and spreading. He was bleeding. He could barely feel it—it seemed like a bee sting.

He grunted. Men were running in the darkness.

Instantly, before he knew it, his gun was in his hand. He aimed out the missing window.

BLAM!

The noise was deafening to his ears.

He had hit one. He had hit one. The man had gone down.

He sighted on another one.

Steady…

Something happened. His whole body bucked wildly in his seat. He had dropped his gun. A shot, something heavy, had gone right through him. It had come from behind him and punched through the dashboard. A gunshot, or a small rocket of some kind. Gingerly, numb with terror, he reached to his chest and touched the area below his throat.

It was… gone.

There was a massive hole in his chest. How was he even still alive?

The answer came instantly: he soon wouldn’t be.

He didn’t even feel it. A sense of warmth spread out through his body. He looked at Daria again. It was too bad. He was going to convince her… of something. Now that would never happen.

She stared at him. Her eyes were round, like saucers. Her mouth was open in a giant O of horror. He felt the urge to comfort her, even now.

“It’s okay,” he wanted to tell her. “It doesn’t hurt.”

But he could not speak.

Men appeared at the window behind her. With their rifle butts, they smashed away the remaining shards of glass. Hands reached in, trying to pull her out the window, but she fought them. She tore at them with her bare hands.

The door opened. Three men now, dragging her, pulling at her.

Then she was gone, and he was alone.

Avraham stared at the vehicle burning in the darkness in front of him. It occurred to him that he had no idea what had happened to the lead vehicle. He supposed it didn’t matter now.

He thought briefly of his parents and his sister. He loved them all, simply and without regret.

He thought of his grandparents, perhaps standing ready to receive him.

He could no longer make out the burning vehicle. It was just bright red, yellow, and orange, flickering against a black background. He watched as the colors became smaller and dimmer, the darkness spreading and growing even darker. The inferno of the exploded car now seemed like the guttering of a spent candle.

He watched until the last of the color went out.

CHAPTER FOUR

4:35 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

Headquarters of the Special Response Team

McLean, Virginia

“Well, I guess the band is officially back together,” Susan Hopkins said.

Luke smiled at the thought.

It was the Special Response Team’s first day in their brand new digs. The new headquarters were their old headquarters from years before, but newly renovated. The squat, three-story, glass and concrete building was in the wealthy suburb of McLean, only a few miles from the CIA. It had a helipad with a brand new black Bell 430 hunched on the tarmac like a dragonfly, gleaming white SRT logo on its side.

There were four black agency SUVs parked in the lot. The building had offices on the first and second floor, and a state-of-the-art conference room that was nearly a match for the Situation Room at the White House. It had every technological bell and whistle that Mark Swann’s fevered imagination could conjure. The workout center (complete with cardio equipment, weight machines, and a heavily padded sparring room) and the cafeteria were on the third floor. The soundproof gun range was in the basement.

The new agency had twenty employees, the perfect size to respond to unfolding events fast, light, and with total flexibility. Spun off from the FBI and now organized as a sub-agency of the Secret Service, the arrangement limited Luke’s interactions with the federal bureaucracy. He reported directly to the President of the United States.

The small campus was surrounded by security fencing, topped with razor wire. But right now the gates were thrown wide open. They were having an Open House today. And Luke was happy to be here.

He strode the halls with Susan, eager to show the President of the United States all the things she already knew about. He felt like a five-year-old. He glanced at her from time to time, soaked in her beauty, but did not stare. He stifled the urge to hold hands, which she apparently felt as well, because her hand brushed his hand, his arm, his shoulder, almost constantly.

She needed to save all that touching for later.

Luke turned his attention to the building. The place had come together exactly as he had hoped, and so had the SRT. His people had agreed to join him. This was no small matter—with all the strife they had endured, and Luke’s extended absence, it was a gift that everyone was willing to trust him again.

He and Susan entered the cafeteria and waded through the crowd, trailed by two Secret Service agents. About a dozen people snaked in a line around the food serving bar. Over by the window, Luke spotted the person he was looking for, standing between Ed Newsam and Mark Swann, dwarfed by the rippling muscle of Ed and the beanpole height of Swann. It was his son, Gunner.

“Come on, Susan, there’s someone over here I want you to meet.”

Suddenly, she looked stricken. “Wait, Luke! This isn’t the right…”

He shook his head, and this time he did grab her—by the wrist. “It’ll be fine. Just tell him you’re my boss. Lie to him.”

They emerged from the crowd and appeared next to Gunner, Ed, and Swann. Swann wore his hair in a ponytail, wraparound glasses on his face. His long body was draped in a black RAMONES T-shirt, faded blue jeans, with yellow-and-black checkerboard Chuck Taylor sneakers on his big feet.

Ed looked huge in a black turtleneck, beige dress pants, and black leather shoes. There was a gold Rolex watch around his wrist. His hair and beard were jet black, closely cropped, and meticulous, like hedges cared for by a master gardener.  

Swann was information systems—one of the best hackers Luke had ever worked with. Ed was weapons and tactics—he had come through Delta Force after Luke. He was absolutely devastating in the use of force. Ed had a glass of wine—it looked tiny in his giant hand. Swann held a black can of beer with a pirate logo on it in one hand, a plate with several large sandwich slices in the other.

“Guys, you both know Susan Hopkins, don’t you?” Luke said.

Ed and Swann shook her hand in turn.

“Madam President,” Ed said. He looked her up and down and smiled. “Good to see you again.”

Luke almost laughed at Ed giving the President the wolf’s eye. He ruffled Gunner’s hair. It was slightly awkward, because Gunner was just a little too tall to have his hair ruffled.

“Madam President, this is my son, Gunner.”

She shook his hand and put on her friendly I’m the President, and I’m meeting some random kid face. “Gunner, very nice to meet you. How are you enjoying the party?”

“It’s okay,” he said. He blushed bright red and did not meet her eyes. He was still a shy kid, in some ways.

“Are your girls here?” Luke said to Ed, changing the subject.

Ed shrugged and smiled. “Oh, they’re running around somewhere.”

A woman appeared at the edge of their group. She was tall, blonde, and striking. She wore a red suit and high heels. Even more striking than her looks was the fact that she went straight to Luke, ignoring the President of the United States.

She held a smartphone out to Luke like a microphone.

“Agent Stone, I’m Tera Wright, with WFNK, DC’s number one radio news.”

Luke almost laughed at her self-introduction. “Hi, Tera,” he said. He expected her to ask him about the reopening of the Special Response Team offices, and the mandate the SRT would have to fight terrorism at home and abroad. Nice. It was something he wouldn’t mind talking about.

“How can I help you?”

“Well,” Tera began, “I see the President is here at your agency’s grand opening.”

Luke nodded. “She sure is. I think the President knows how impor—”

The woman cut him off. “Can you answer one question for me, please?”

“Of course.”

“Are the rumors true?”

“Uh, I’m not aware of any—”

“Rumors have been circulating for a couple of weeks,” Tera Wright informed him.

“Rumors about what?” Luke said. He glanced around at the group, like a drowning man hoping for a rope.

Tera Wright raised a hand as if to say STOP. “Let’s do this a different way,” she said. “What would you say is the nature of your relationship with President Hopkins?”

Luke looked at Susan. Susan was an old hand at this. She didn’t blush. She didn’t look guilty. She merely raised an eyebrow and stared quizzically at the back of the reporter’s head, like she had no idea what this person might be referring to.

Luke took a breath. “Well, I would say that President Hopkins is my boss.”

“Nothing more?” the reporter said.

“Same as you,” Luke said. “She’s also my Commander-in-Chief.”

He glanced at Susan again, thinking she would jump in now and steer the conversation in a new direction. But now Susan’s chief-of-staff was there, pretty Kat Lopez, in a form-fitting blue pinstriped suit. Kat was still slim, though her face was not nearly as youthful as it had been when she took this job. Three years of constant stress and herding cats would do a number on anyone.

She was speaking low, practically whispering, directly into Susan’s ear.

Susan’s face darkened as she listened, then she nodded. Whatever it was, it was bad.

She looked up.

“Gentlemen,” she said. “I hope you’ll excuse me.”

CHAPTER FIVE

6:15 p.m. Eastern Standard Time

The Situation Room

The White House, Washington, DC

“Amy,” Kurt said, “please give us Lebanon and Israel. Focus on the Blue Line.”

On the oversized screen behind him, a map appeared. A second later, it popped up on the smaller screens embedded in the walls. The map showed two territories, bisected by a thick, undulating blue line. To the left of the land area was a pale blue area, denoting the Mediterranean Sea.

Susan knew the area well enough that she could easily skip this geography lesson. Further, she was frustrated—she had already been back at the White House for an hour. It had taken this long to pull this meeting together.

“I’m going to race through the preliminaries, if no one minds,” Kurt said. “I imagine everyone in this room is up on current events enough to know that there was a skirmish on the border between Lebanon and Israel nearly two hours ago.

“The Blue Line, which you see here, is the negotiated border, behind which Israel agreed to pull back her troops after the 1982 war and occupation. An unknown number of Hezbollah commandos made an incursion and attacked an Israeli patrol on the road that follows the Blue Line for much of its length. There were eight soldiers from the Israeli Defense Forces on the patrol, all of whom we know were killed, except one.”

A formal photograph of a dark-haired young woman appeared on the screens. It looked like a photo taken for a high school yearbook, or before some kind of awards ceremony. The girl was smiling brightly. More than smiling—she was positively beaming.

“Daria Shalit,” Kurt said. “Nineteen years old, and just beginning the second year of her compulsory two-year service in the IDF.”

“Pretty,” someone in the room said.

Kurt didn’t respond. A long exhale escaped from him.

“Believe me, there is a lot of table-pounding and soul-searching in Israeli decision-making circles. Women have participated in the Israeli border patrols for the past several months. It seems clear now that this was a preplanned kidnapping with Shalit, or any young woman on the patrol, as the intended target. An assault force pursued the kidnappers across the border, but met with furious resistance within two kilometers. Another four Israelis were killed, along with an estimated twenty Hezbollah militants.”

“Helen of Troy,” a man in military dress greens said.

Kurt nodded. “Exactly. The effect on Israeli society has been visceral. It has been a punch to the gut, and this was probably the intent. Our intelligence suggests that Hezbollah is deliberately trying to spark a war, similar to the one that took place in 2006. Unfortunately, we suspect they are leading Israel into a trap.”

“Hezbollah is tough,” the military man said. “They are hard to root out.”

“Amy,” Kurt said. “Give me Hezbollah, please.”

On the screen, an image appeared of a group of men marching with banners, fists in the air. Kurt gestured at the men with a laser pointer. 

“Hezbollah—the Party of God, or Army of God, depending on which translation you prefer—is probably the world’s largest and most militarily capable terror organization. They were created, and are trained, funded, and deployed, as a proxy of the Iranian government, with operations spanning Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas.

“As terrorists go, Hezbollah is vastly formidable. They enjoy worldwide legitimacy among Shiite Muslims, sophistication of operations, and an organizational ability that ISIS can only dream of having among Sunnis. In the areas of Lebanon where Hezbollah are based, they often act as the de facto local government, with the full cooperation of the population. They run schools, food, recreation and job programs, and they send a handful of elected representatives to the Lebanese parliament. Their military wing is far more effective and powerful than the Lebanese military. Because of the religious differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Hezbollah and ISIS are enemies, sworn to destroy each other.”

“What’s so bad about that?” Susan said, only half-joking. “The enemy of my enemy is my friend, isn’t she?”

Kurt almost smiled. “Careful. Hezbollah’s policy toward our close ally Israel is one of open-ended holy war. According to Hezbollah, Israel is an existential threat, oppresses Lebanese society, oppresses the Palestinians, and must be destroyed at all costs.”

“Do they have a chance of doing that?” Susan said.

Kurt shrugged.

“They could do some damage, the extent of which we don’t know. Current assessments suggest that Hezbollah has between twenty-five thousand and thirty thousand fighters. Perhaps ten thousand to fifteen thousand of those fighters have combat experience, either during the 2006 war, or more recently fighting directly against ISIS in the Syrian Civil War. We believe as many as twenty thousand troops have received training from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—five thousand or more have gone to Iran and received extensive training.

“Hezbollah has a network of deep tunnels and fortifications in the hilly region just north of the Blue Line, which during the 2006 war with Israel proved impossible to completely take out from the air. Israeli intelligence assessments suggest that these forts have only become deeper, more hardened, and more sophisticated since 2006. Our own intelligence suggests that Hezbollah has more than sixty-five thousand rockets and missiles, plus millions of rounds of small arms ammunition. Their arsenal is probably five times as large as it was in 2006. Throughout Hezbollah’s history, Iran has been reluctant to provide them with anything more than slow-moving, short-range missiles and rockets, and we suspect that this is still the case.”

“What is Israel doing?” the man in dress greens said.

Kurt nodded. Behind him on the screen, the Blue Line reappeared. All along the south side of it, small icons of soldiers appeared.

“Now we get to the meat of it. The Israelis have amassed a large incursion force at the border, with more units joining all the time. The Secretary of State has been on the phone with Yonatan Stern, the Israeli Prime Minister. Yonatan is a hardliner, popular with the right wing of Israeli society. To maintain his popularity with his base, he’s going to have to deliver here. He needs a decisive victory, a return of the missing soldier—something. We understand he plans to send the Israeli incursion force across the border within the next few hours, essentially invading Lebanon.”

“In a sense, you could say that Israel was already invaded by Lebanon,” the military man said.

Kurt nodded. “You could say that. Combined with the invasion, Stern plans to conduct a bombing campaign. We have requested that the bombing campaign be limited to twelve hours in duration, be designed to avoid civilian casualties, and only target known Hezbollah military assets.”

“What did Yonatan say to that?” Susan said. Yonatan Stern was not her favorite person in the world. You might even say that they did not get along.

“He said he would take it under advisement.”

Susan shook her head. “Yonatan’s another one of you men. He never met a war, or a weapon system, he didn’t like.”

She paused. This seemed like another low-grade Israel-Hezbollah skirmish, just like all the Israel-Hamas skirmishes, and the Israel-PLO skirmishes before those. Ugly, bloody, brutish, and in the end, inconclusive. Just another practice round for the next practice round.

“So what is our end game here, Kurt? What are the dangers, and what do you suggest that we do?”

Kurt sighed. His perfectly bald head reflected the lights recessed in the ceiling. “As always, the danger is that the fighting spills out of control and becomes linked to, or causes, other regional fighting. Hezbollah and the Palestinians are allies. Often, Hamas uses these wars with Hezbollah as cover to launch their own guerrilla attacks inside Israel. Syria is in chaos, with numerous small, but heavily armed groups looking to exploit instability.

“Meanwhile, large majorities in Jordan, Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia identify as anti-Israel. And there is always Iran, the biggest, meanest kid on that block, hovering in the background with arms folded, with the big Russian bear hovering behind them. Everyone involved is armed to the teeth.”

“And our next steps?”