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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
Three top secret research scientists are presumed dead in a boating accident, but the kidnapping of their families the same day raises questions the FBI and local police can’t answer, leaving them waiting for a ransom demand that will never come.
Central Intelligence Agency Analyst Chris Leroux stumbles upon the story, and finds a phone conversation that was never supposed to happen. When he reports it to his boss, the National Clandestine Services Chief, he is uncharacteristically reprimanded for conducting an unauthorized investigation and told to leave it to the FBI.
But he can’t let it go.
For he knows something the FBI doesn’t.
One of the scientists is alive.
Chris makes a call to his childhood friend, CIA Special Agent Dylan Kane, leading to a race across the globe to stop a conspiracy reaching the highest levels of political and corporate America, that if not stopped, could lead to war with an enemy armed with a weapon far worse than anything in the American arsenal, with the potential to not only destroy the world, but consume it.
USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy introduces Rogue Operator, the first installment of his newest series, The Special Agent Dylan Kane Thrillers, promising to bring all of the action and intrigue of the James Acton Thrillers with a hero who lives below the radar, waiting for his country to call when it most desperately needs him.
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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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
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that one way or another.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer Father of the Atomic Bomb
At the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, a wall of white Vermont marble, called the Memorial Wall, honors CIA employees who died in the line of service. A star is carved into the marble for each of the employees who have died in the line of duty.
The Book of Honor, a black Moroccan goatskin-bound tome, sits beneath the stars. Inside, when national security permits, it lists the names of those who are represented by the stars, along with the year they died.
At the time of the writing of this novel, only 77 stars have a name. The rest remain secret. The first star belongs to Douglas Mackiernan. He died in 1950.
His name wasn’t added to the Book of Honor until 2006.
Currently, there are 103 stars.
Echelon Intercept, Received Today Fort Meade, National Security Agency Headquarters
[CLASSIFICATION TOP SECRET UMBRA GAMMA]
[DICTIONARY HITS: NONE, NATSEC WIRE TAP AUTH XU11A43]
[SOURCE ILC INTERNATIONAL LEASE CARRIER INTSAT-ALPHA]
[CALL ORIGIN: INTSAT INTERCEPT, SOURCE UNKNOWN]
[CALL DESTINATION: SEATTLE, WA, USA, LAND LINE 206-555-4178]
[START OF TRANSCRIPT]
[CALLER1] “Hi, Mom, it’s me.”
[CALLER2] “Oh my God, it’s so good to hear your voice. Where have you been, we’ve been so worried! I didn’t believe them for a second when they said you were dead!”
[CALLER1] “I’m okay, Mom, don’t worry.”
[CALLER2] “Are Maggie and the kids with you?”
[CALLER1] “Yes. Everyone’s okay.”
[CALLER2] “Where are you? We’ve been worried sick.”
[CALLER1] “I can’t say.”
[CALLER2] “What do you mean you can’t say?”
[CALLER1] “I’m sorry, Mom, I have to go. Listen, I just wanted you to know we’re okay. Don’t worry about us.”
[CALLER2] “I don’t understand. Why can’t—”
[CALLER1] “I’m sorry, Mom, I’ve got to go. Say hi to Dad. And Mom?”
[CALLER1] “Tell them not to look for us.”
[END OF TRANSCRIPT]
Omega Bionetix Lab, Ogden, Utah Three months ago
Jason Peterson stared at the screen, the magnification unimaginable to the lay person, but to him, mere routine. But today was anything but routine. Years of work were about to either pay off, or fizzle in yet another disappointing failure. His heart pounded in anticipation, and he tried to calm himself with deep, steady breaths.
When he could think of it.
It was just too exciting. He and his partners had devoted almost their entire professional lives to this research, bleeding edge by anyone’s standards, and had never been closer to succeeding than they were now. It had taken months just to set up the experiment, their new design requiring painstaking manipulation where just one wrong move, and there had been many, meant starting over.
Hence the requirement for steady hands. And breathing.
But today there were no hands involved. Today they had flipped the proverbial switch, and their experiment was on its own.
He looked where his partner—and friend—Carl Shephard pointed.
Could it be?
He touched the monitor and dragged his finger, redirecting the microscope to center on a new location.
“Jesus Christ!” whispered Phil Hopkins. “It’s working.”
And it was.
And it was beautiful.
The three simply stared, and when it was over, only thirteen seconds later, Jason felt tears running down his cheeks that had gone unnoticed.
“We did it.”
It was a statement, spoken sotto voce, to no one in particular, for it was obvious to the three scientists that their life’s work had finally borne fruit.
“What’s going on?”
It was Phil who verbalized what his eyes had noticed.
The experiment hadn’t stopped.
“What’s it doing?” Jason whispered, zooming in for an even deeper look.
“The process didn’t stop,” said Carl, the fear in his voice palpable, as he rushed over to one of the workstations, furiously typing. “There must be a programming error!”
Jason could feel his chest tighten as their experiment grew, exponentially, on screen. What was supposed to be a single replication, had now doubled, with a quadrupling already underway.
He turned to see Carl poring over the code that had been used to configure the experiment, Phil at the terminal beside him, examining another section of the code.
“There!” said Phil, pointing at his screen. They all gathered around to see a single line of code commented out with a simple ‘//’. A line of code that triggered the process to stop after it had completed, otherwise the process looped back to the top to replicate again.
Jason felt faint and grabbed the back of Carl’s chair. “How the hell did that happen?” he asked, steadying himself, the implications of this one line of disabled code beginning to be realized.
An alarm sounded and all their heads spun toward the display. The screen was now filled, a squirming mass eating its way through everything in its path.
“We’ve lost integrity on the test environment!” exclaimed Phil as he read the error flashing on his screen. “How’s that possible?”
But Jason didn’t care how it was possible. He only cared about how to stop it.
“We need to shut it down!” he yelled, the alarm blaring.
“The EMP. It’s the only way!”
Jason reached for the switch on the wall, flipping open the protective cover. He felt someone grab his arm. It was Phil.
“No, you can’t! We’ll lose all our research. Everything! We’ll have to start over!”
Jason wrenched his arm free.
“None of that will matter if we don’t stop this. Everything, everyone, will be gone!”
“There has to be another way!” cried Phil, lunging for Jason’s arm as he reached for the large, round button.
They both turned to see Carl pointing at the casing housing the experiment.
It was disintegrating before their eyes.
“Press the button, for the love of God!” pleaded Carl as the casing turned to a liquid almost resembling mercury, and poured out onto the floor.
Jason remained frozen, his mind a fog of what they had done, the horror they had unleashed on the world.
“Press the damned button!” roared Carl.
Jason tore himself from Phil’s grasp, his partner’s hold no longer strong, his will to preserve their work apparently waning as the terror of what was unfolding triggered his own desire for self-preservation.
Jason slammed his palm against the large red button and the sounds of the massive EMP generator powering up could be heard on the other side of the wall.
“How long?” asked Carl as he backed away from the encroaching mass.
“It’ll be ten times the size by then!”
A display flickered on the wall, its LED numbers counting down far slower than Jason’s heart slammed against his ribcage. He backed into a corner, as far away as he could get from the mass as it seemed to regurgitate toward him, the electromagnetic pulse engine still with far too much time left. His thoughts were consumed not for the planet he had just destroyed, but for his wife and kids, who would die without him, never knowing it was their own protector who had unleashed the devastation upon them, and mankind.
I’m so sorry.
Waterford Academy, Ogden, Utah Last Week
Maggie Peterson looked at her watch.
Where are those kids? She didn’t have time for their dillydallying today. Not with Jason away. In fact, with him away, she was being run ragged. I don’t know how single mothers do it! She spotted Darius sliding down the railing, her heart skipping a beat before he landed safely at the bottom, the teacher monitoring the stairs wagging a finger at him, he dipping his head in apology as he quickly walked by, then as soon as she was out of sight—from his eight-year-old perspective—a smile spread across his face and he waved, running for the car.
Maggie waved back, her head shaking, but smiling, as she urged him on with a wave of her hand.
“Where’s your sister?” she asked as Darius climbed into the car, smacking every conceivable surface with his backpack as he removed it, his coordination skills still developing into what she feared would be his father’s.
He shrugged, the one thing he seemed to be able to coordinate no matter what he was doing.
“I didn’t see her all day.”
Maggie frowned and was about to fish out her cellphone when she saw her twelve-year-old daughter Ayla saunter down the stairs with several of her gaggle, as if they owned the place.
Seniors. Is she ever going to be shocked when she’s the youngest at her school next year.
Maggie honked the horn and Ayla cast a disapproving glance. The gaggle exchanged hugs, then Ayla continued her saunter toward the car.
“Let’s go!” yelled Maggie through the open passenger side window. “We’re already late!”
Ayla picked up her pace. Slightly.
Maggie was about to let her have a burst of impatience when she instead sucked in a deep breath and turned away from the sight of pre-teen disrespect, squaring herself with the steering wheel, her mind drifting to what she had to look forward to with full-blown teenaged rebellion.
God, Jason, why do you have to go on that stupid fishing trip every year!
But she knew why. His job. No, it wasn’t work related, but it actually was—sort of. He and his two research buddies would go every year. They had since they were all hired away from Boeing almost fifteen years ago. Cherry-picked for being the best, they were also the three newbies brought in to save a top secret weapons research department the existing staff felt had no need of saving.
So they had bonded, and every year went on a fishing trip together, this year, despite the layoffs announced, being no different. Jason was probably safe, but if he weren’t, he hadn’t mentioned anything to her, nor would he. She had only found out through Phoebe, Carl Shephard’s wife—one of the three stooges now probably catching nothing—that there were major layoffs at the company, some contract apparently lost.
She smiled at the thought of three scientists fishing as the car door finally opened. Jason was brilliant, and a wonderful husband. But coordinated he was not. Him working a fishing line, actually trying to cast—
“What’s so funny?”
She looked at Ayla, finally gracing the family with her presence.
“Nothing, just picturing your dad fishing.”
Darius giggled as she put the car in gear and checked her mirrors, pulling out of the pickup loop at the exclusive private school. As she approached the gate, the security guard gave her a nod and smile as he checked off her license plate from the list.
She gave him a wave, then pulled into traffic, leaving the walled compound meant to secure and educate VIP children, behind. She remembered when they had first arrived in Ogden. She had read the company briefing papers, and had laughed at the suggestion it contained about sending their future children to Waterford Academy. They had both actually laughed at the prospect.
But when Ayla was born, and ready for school far too quickly, she had called the local schools to make appointments. She had only gone to one.
“Where does your husband work?”
“Omega Bionetix,” she remembered telling the principal.
“Oh, then you shouldn’t be wasting your time with us. You should be going to Waterford Academy.”
“I’d rather not. I’d prefer my kid to go to a regular school.”
The principal had closed the file and pushed it aside.
“Mrs. Peterson, if you value your child’s life, you will send them to Waterford.”
It had scared her to the core, and when Jason had returned home, he found her huddled in her bedroom, hugging her pillow, her tear streaked face leaving no chance even he, the distracted scientist, could miss.
“What’s wrong, honey?”
“You! You! That’s what’s wrong!”
His eyebrows had shot up, his chin dropped, and he gave her that questioning, “what the hell did I do now?” look. She told him about the meeting at the school, and he nodded, sitting down beside her.
“Perhaps it’s time you found out what I do. At least an idea of what I do.”
“What do you mean? You’re a medical researcher!”
He shook his head and took her hand.
Five minutes later she had left a message on the admissions department voice mail at Waterford.
She adjusted her rearview mirror and tapped her brakes, her subtle hint to the black SUV behind her it was getting a little too close. It backed off, and she turned the corner to head to the grocery store.
“Where are you going?” asked Ayla.
“I need to pick up a few things at the grocery store, it’ll only take a moment.”
“But, Mom! I’m supposed to go to Julie’s after school!”
“It will only take a few minutes, you can still go.”
“But I told her I’d be right over! Now she’s gonna think I’m not coming!”
“Then send her a text!”
“You took my phone away, remember?”
Maggie eyed the rearview mirror again. The SUV was back, and tailgating her again.
“Well, you should have followed the rules. Texting after bedtime is a no-no. You agreed when we gave you the phone. You broke the rules, and these are the consequences.”
Ayla slammed her fists into the schoolbag sitting on her lap. “I hate this family! You guys are so strict!” she screamed.
Maggie chose to ignore it. She had said similar things when she was Ayla’s age, but she was certain over much more important things than a cellphone.
God, I’d hate to be a kid today.
There was no downtime. Cellphones, text messages, Facebook, Twitter, email. Chatting online with forty kids at once, hundreds of text messages a day. The kids could never get a break. When she was growing up, she’d lie in her bedroom listening to music, reading, and if she wanted to talk to someone, she’d have to go ask for the phone, and it meant talking to one friend at a time. And when she didn’t want to talk, she’d be able to just not answer the phone, or tell her mom to take a message.
But not today. These kids were so wired in, from the moment they woke up they were being hounded. Which was why they had made the rule. No cellphone after bedtime.
Another black SUV pulled up beside her as a large semi-trailer changed into her lane up ahead. She glanced over, finding it slightly odd two identical vehicles would be so close to her in traffic. The blacked out windows sent a little shiver down her spine. She glanced at the rearview, the other SUV still only feet from her bumper.
She eased off the gas.
The vehicle beside her continued past, then pulled in front, the massive bulk blocking her view of the traffic ahead. She debated changing lanes, but she had to turn right in the next few minutes. She hated SUV’s and trucks. You can’t see through them, over them or around them. They were a danger to the other vehicles on the road, and half the time they were driven by idiots who thought they were invincible once behind the wheel.
She glanced back at Darius, who was busying himself with his Nintendo 3DS.
“Mom! Look out!”
Her eyes darted from the rearview mirror to the road in front to find the SUV had swerved to the left, leaving her barreling toward the back of the semi-trailer, its loading ramp down, its empty interior gaping in front of them.
She jumped on her brakes as she looked in the rearview mirror at the tailgating SUV. It slammed into the back of them and she instinctively reached a hand out to prevent Ayla from smacking into the dash. She turned toward Darius, his terrified eyes meeting hers as his Nintendo flew out of his hands, his tiny body shoved into the back of the seat.
Ayla screamed, Darius joining her, as Maggie tried to keep cool.
It’s just a car accident.
But something was wrong. Her mind was a jumble, her thoughts scrambled from the shock, the panic, the screams, the concern over her kids.
And the fact their car was still moving.
“Mom! What’s happening?”
But she didn’t know. She couldn’t figure out what was going on. She looked ahead, at the truck in front of her, the truck that continued to get closer, and her mind reeled as it tried to comprehend what it was seeing.
Her foot was planted firmly on the brake, but an engine was roaring. Her instinct was to turn off her car, but it wasn’t her engine she was hearing. It was the engine of the SUV, its tires squealing behind them as they continued forward. She looked in the rearview mirror at the SUV still on their bumper, when it all clicked.
It’s pushing us!
The front of the car jolted as it hit something, then suddenly they were all tilted back in their seats. Darius wailed, Ayla screamed, and Maggie reached up to press the panic button.
They jerked up the ramp, into the back of the semi-trailer. Maggie shoved the brake into the floor even harder, reaching over with her foot and pushing hard on the emergency brake, but they continued to hop forward, their tires not turning, all momentum being created by the massive SUV behind them.
She felt the rear tires hit the ramp, the front tires now at the top as she shook the steering wheel. “Pick up! Pick up! Pick up!” The darkness of the interior cast a deep shadow over the front of the car, then suddenly they tipped up. A final gun of the engine behind them, and they bounced into the back of the truck completely, the blackness enveloping them, Darius and Ayla both screaming in terror, a third voice barely recognized as her own joining them.
“This is On-Star, how may I—”
“Help us! Help us! Oh God please help us!” she cried as she saw the SUV disappear from her rearview mirror, then the sunlight pouring in from outside suddenly vanished as the rear doors slammed shut.
And the cellphone signal died.
The car jerked, and she realized the truck they had been pushed into was beginning to move. The kids continued to scream, the inky blackness not helping. She reached forward, her hands shaking, and turned on the headlights.
And she joined the screams.
Mona Reservoir, Utah
Jason Peterson covered his head, the explosion terrific, casting a huge arc of water over their tiny boat.
“Carl, are you freakin’ crazy?” he yelled as he laughed. Carl Shephard shrugged his shoulders and grinned from under the umbrella he had popped open only moments before. “Nobody said you could use explosives!”
Carl closed the umbrella, placing it beside him in their small v-hull boat while wagging a finger.
“Not true. The rules of the game say no explosive material may be used. I used a high pressure gas to create a shockwave that momentarily displaced the water, hence the shower you both just enjoyed. And, I might point out, by doing so, I have set a new record.” He pointed at the water.
Jason looked at where he was pointing. At least a dozen fish had bobbed to the surface.
“Can I see the trigger?” asked Phil Hopkins.
Carl shook his head. “Completely autonomous. I married up one of our miniaturized drones, programmed it to seek out a school of fish, then detonate when within one meter.”
Jason’s eyebrows shot up and his chin dropped to his chest. “And just how was this thing going to know that the biological it found were fish and not humans?”
“Anything more than a foot in length it aborts.”
“You’re lucky we’re on this lake alone,” said Phil. He jabbed a finger in the air at Carl. “And next year we’re amending the rules. No autonomous robots, and nothing that can suddenly displace water or air.”
Carl frowned. “Awww, you guys are no fun,” he moaned with mock angst. A moment later he was all smiles as he grabbed his net and began fishing dinner for a few days out of the water.
Jason laughed. He couldn’t remember the last time they had just had a simple, good time. Certainly not since the accident at the lab. And in fact, they had all been under so much pressure, it was probably their fishing trip the previous year that they had last all had a good laugh. They had debated cancelling the trip this year after the near catastrophe, but decided against it.
This is the only thing that keeps us sane.
“Catch and release for the next few days, I guess,” he said as he grabbed his own net to help.
“Looks like we’ve got company.”
He stopped and looked to where Phil was pointing as Carl continued to gather his trophies.
“It’s a public lake, boys, we’ve just been lucky so far.” Carl grunted as he leaned out, tipping the boat slightly. “Just…one…more!”
The boat tipped precariously to the side, and Jason yelped as he reached for Carl. His own weight caused the boat to tilt even more and he gasped for air as he tumbled into the water after Carl. He hit the frigid water and his instinct was to gasp from the cold, but he resisted, instead spreading out his legs and arms, then opening his squeezed-shut eyes. He could see nothing at first, then turned his head and saw the surface above him. Waving his arms and kicking his legs, he began to inch toward the dim light, his unprepared lungs ready to burst, every inch of his body screaming against the cold.
Something grabbed his foot.
His heart hammered into his chest, and he kicked, trying to free himself from whatever had a grip on him, but it wouldn’t let go. His lungs were ready to burst from the exertion and he felt himself begin to be dragged down.
He bent over, pulling his leg up, or rather his body down toward his leg, and nearly gasped when he saw it was a hand wrapped around his ankle.
Jason reached down and grabbed him by the wrist, and pulled. Carl let go of Jason’s ankle, and his face came into sight. With his legs freed, Jason kicked as hard as he could, clawing at the water with his free hand, his lungs on fire, desperate for oxygen. The surface was so far above he knew they weren’t going to make it.
A shadow crossed overhead. The hull of a boat. Two more shadows, smaller, hit the water. It took him a moment to realize it was people jumping in. He wanted to shout, to let their rescuers know where they were, but his sealed lips, his burning lungs, were about to give into the instinctual temptation his rapidly fogging brain was demanding.
His legs were barely kicking now, his arm was still stretched out above him, but had stopped its desperate clawing, and he felt his grip loosening on Carl’s wrist, Carl’s own fingers limp. Jason looked up, and saw the shadows moving overhead, but the hull of the boat was receding, the surface getting farther away.
Images of Maggie, Ayla and Darius flashed before his eyes, the last hug he had given Maggie, in haste as he rushed out the door, late. Ayla, none given, he deciding not to wake her up, Darius, who he had afforded only a pat on the head as he gave his one armed hug to his beloved wife.
I’m so sorry!
He felt his chest heave with the thoughts of what his family’s last memories would be of him. The father, the husband, in too much of a hurry to take the few seconds necessary for a proper goodbye.
His heart sank as he remembered the reason why he had let Ayla sleep in. The night before they had had a fight, and he had taken her cellphone away. His heart ached at the thought his daughter’s final memories would be of anger, and the guilt she would feel over that.
He kicked, hard, yanking Carl with him, focusing instead on the rapidly approaching shadow, rather than the fading surface. He stretched his hand out as far as he could, and just as his final burst of energy was about to give out, he felt a hand grab him by the wrist, and one of the shadows suddenly blocked the surface from his view. Something pressed against his mouth, trying to push it open, but he fought, shaking his head, knowing if he opened his mouth, the last bit of air he had would escape, and he’d drown.
The hand left his wrist and instead grabbed the back of his head, pushing whatever it was against his mouth even harder. It was then he felt the bubbles tickling his nose, and he opened his mouth. Water rushed in, but so did the mouthpiece from the scuba gear his rescuer must be wearing. He clamped down and breathed out, forcing the water from his mouth, then sucked in a deep breath, knowing if he was wrong, this would be his end.
The sweet relief of oxygen filled his lungs. He gulped in breath after breath, the fire subsiding, his head clearing, his strength returning slightly, the oxygen doing little to fortify him against the frigid waters.
He pulled Carl up beside him and took the mouthpiece and shoved it into his friend’s mouth as he and his rescuer kicked toward the surface. He felt another hand on his arm as the second rescuer took charge of Carl. The surface rapidly approached, and suddenly his head was clear of the water.
He gasped for air as he was pulled toward a boat he didn’t recognize. Two pairs of strong hands reached unseen over the edge and he was hauled from the water, and dumped onto the deck. As he coughed to clear his lungs, shivering, the bright afternoon sun, so warm only minutes before, felt a frigid imitation of its former self.
He heard something drop beside him and he turned to see Carl’s blue face. He rolled over to try and begin CPR, but was shoved aside, the form of a man he didn’t recognize now leaning over Carl, checking his pulse.
“Jason! Carl! Are you guys okay?”
It was Phil. Jason struggled to his elbows, then a sitting position. He crawled over to the side of the deck of the much larger boat, and draped his exhausted frame over the side. He gave Phil a half-hearted wave.
“You okay?” asked Phil.
Jason looked over at Carl and saw two men working on him, one doing chest compressions, the other performing mouth to mouth. Jason’s chest was tight as he realized his friend of over fifteen years was dying in front of him.
What am I going to tell his wife? That I was too weak to save him?
He damned himself for not being in shape, for leading a sedentary lifestyle. If he had only taken better care of himself, he might have had more strength to pull them both to the surface, but instead, here was Carl, most likely technically dead, with these strangers valiantly trying to save his friend’s life.
He looked at Phil and shook his head. Phil’s shoulders slumped, his head dropping against his chest. There was a cough behind him. Jason’s head spun toward the sound and he cried out in joy as he saw Carl cough again, water spewing from his mouth as the men rolled him onto his side. Within moments his natural color started to return to his purple lips as he sucked in more fresh air, his coughs continuing.
“What’s going on?”
Jason turned to Phil, his smile revealing all Phil needed to know. Phil jumped in the boat, pumping his fist in the air, and as the boat rocked from his stupidity, a look of horror crossed his face as he dropped down, trying to stabilize himself and their craft. Gripping the edges, he sat down and tightened his life preserver.
“Why don’t you head back to shore before you get yourself killed,” suggested Jason.
Phil, the only non-swimmer in the trio, nodded and grabbed the oars. Jason felt a blanket being draped over his shoulders, and looked over to see one of his rescuers standing over him.
“You need to get warmed up before hypothermia sets in,” said the man towering over him. He looked to be at least six foot two, two hundred pounds, and his arms rippled with muscles and what looked like a Special Forces tattoo of some type half hidden by a short sleeved neoprene wetsuit.
Jason nodded. “If you could take us to shore, we’ve got clothes there and can get a fire going pretty quick.” Jason pointed in the direction Phil was rowing. “Straight that way, you can’t miss it, we’re the only camp on the lake I think.”
The man nodded and turned, jabbing his finger in the direction of Phil. The boat’s engines roared to life, and the craft gently surged forward, the pilot apparently in no hurry. Jason began to dry his hair with the blanket.
“Are you Dr. Jason Peterson?”
Jason’s eyes shot open.
“How’d you know that?”
The man motioned at Carl.
“Is that Dr. Carl Shephard?”
“And I presume the man in the boat is Dr. Phil Hopkins?”
Jason’s eyes narrowed. “How’d you know that? Are you with the rental agency?”
The man chuckled, reaching behind his back.
“No, we’re not with that agency.”
Jason gasped, and tried to push himself through the gunwale as a pistol appeared. The man raised it and pointed it directly at Jason’s chest, then squeezed the trigger. Jason felt something hit him, but not with as much pain as he would have expected. He looked down and saw a tiny dart protruding from his chest and he pulled it out. He turned to Carl, to warn him, but it was too late, the man already firing at his friend.
Something was yelled in a language he didn’t recognize as the world turned into a deep fog. The boat surged ahead and as he was consumed by nothingness, he heard a scream and a terrific crash, and he knew they had just run down Phil in the tiny rowboat.
Why is this happening?
Maggie Peterson screamed, screamed like she had never before. Her instinct was to turn the car lights off, as if doing so might hide the horror she now faced. Four men, all in black, their faces covered by ski masks, stood in front of the car, assault rifles pointed at her and her daughter. But before she could reach forward to turn the switch, two of the men rushed forward, on either side of the car. She raised her hands to shield herself as they raised their weapons and smashed in the side windows.
Ayla screamed, and Maggie spun toward her, reaching out. As she did, her foot slipped off the brake and the car surged forward, its automatic transmission hurtling the car ahead, toward the two men still standing in front of the vehicle. A hand gripped her by the blouse, pulling at her as the car continued forward.
She pushed on the gas.
The car jumped, the grip on her shoulder breaking, and she closed her eyes as the two men hopped up on the bumper, then the hood. The car jerked to a stop as it hit the front of the trailer they were in, the airbags deploying with a crack far louder than she had imagined they would, and she found herself gasping for breath as she recovered from being shoved into the back of her seat.
She pushed against the already deflating bag and reached down to put the car in reverse, but it was no use. The engine had cut off, and a pair of hands were already pulling her out of the now open driver side door. Still disoriented from the crash and the airbags, she struggled but to no avail, the entire experience now a nightmare, the headlights shattered, the only light now from the flashers that were immediately turned on after the airbags deployed, their pulse lending an artificial glow to the entire experience.
She heard another door open, and Ayla screamed. Her voice was muffled suddenly, then Maggie heard a man yelp in pain.
“The bitch bit me!”
Good for you!
The truck they were in suddenly jerked and she lost her balance, falling into the arms of her assailant. She heard the hiss of airbrakes, then the engine she hadn’t noticed before, stopped. A noise at the back of the truck had her spinning as she was lifted to her feet, and suddenly the entire truck was bathed in sunlight as the rear doors were thrown open.
She was pushed toward the light and soon found herself squinting at the sun, covering her eyes, as she gingerly made her way down the same ramp they had been pushed up only minutes before. She turned back and saw Darius being carried fireman style, screaming at the top of his lungs, his little legs kicking ineffectually at the man. Ayla was being held from behind, carried forward, the man gripping her under her ribcage as he struggled against her more ferocious attack.
Maggie noticed his hand was bleeding, a trickle of blood on Ayla’s chin. Ayla’s leg swung out then up, catching the man in the groin. He grunted and loosened his grip. Ayla shrugged out of the hold, and ran forward, into the sunlight and fell down the ramp. Maggie stepped forward to help her, but was held back by her captor.
Two SUVs, she presumed the two from earlier, were parked behind the truck, and the passenger side door of one of them opened, a man, the first one she had seen without his face covered, stepped out and rounded the front of the vehicle.
“Sir, your face!” It was the one holding her.
The man shook his head. “Doesn’t matter, not where they’re going.” He raised a hand gun and pointed it at Ayla and fired. Ayla fell backward, into the arms of the man she had bit as Maggie screamed. Her mind began to swim, her vision blurring, as she watched her baby go limp, and the man, her murderer, turn toward tiny Darius.
He fired, eliciting another scream from Maggie as the weapon was turned on her. He squeezed, but she felt nothing, her mind shutting down from the horror of seeing her children murdered in front of her, it judging the experience of her own death an unnecessary evil.
As she slumped to the ground, all she heard was the blood rushing in her ears, and a thumping sound in the distance.
Detective Jack Percy looked at the rubber that had been laid on the pavement earlier. There was no doubt something had happened, but the question was what? The reports were confused, conflicted, and none of them frankly believable.
A car was pushed into the back of a truck by an SUV?
He had called bullshit on the report when it came into the office, and after bets were taken, had gone out with his partner as they were next in the rotation.
“What do you make of it?” asked Jamie Conway as she chewed on a power bar. Peanut butter flavor. His favorite.
“Do you have another one of those?”
She shook her head. “Sorry, Boss, last one. Want half?”
He waved off the proffered bar. “Naw, I’ll grab something after we’re finished up here.” He pointed at the tread marks. “Get the crime scene guys down here, have them get photos of the treads, see if they can match the vehicle types. Put an APB on the vehicles. One or two black SUV’s, tinted windows, damage to the front end of one.”
Percy pointed at the ground. “There’s some glass and plastic here. Could be from the SUV, could be from the car. Have the lab guys check it out.”
Jamie finished jotting in her notebook then nodded.
“So, do you still think it’s a bullshit call?”
He shrugged his shoulders. “For all we know there was a rear-ender. Car hits back of truck, SUV hits back of car, insurance papers are exchanged quickly, or there was no major damage so they decide to forgo it. You know how reliable witnesses are.”
“Do you honestly believe what just came out of your mouth?”
He grinned. “Not for a second.” Twenty-two years on the force told him something more was going on. Witnesses would conflict in their statements, and the witnesses here did, but they all agreed on one thing. A car was pushed into the back of a truck. The disagreement was on what the truck looked like, what the car and SUV looked like, and the number of vehicles involved.
“Did we get any cellphone footage?”
Jamie shook her head. “Nada. Not exactly prime real estate here, and the few witnesses didn’t think to haul out their phones.”
“No teenagers then?”
He swirled his hand over his head. “Check every store, see if we have anything caught on security camera. We might get lucky.”
Jamie didn’t look convinced. “Not exactly a camera friendly neighborhood, Boss. This is industrial.”
One of the officers manning the scene ran over.
“Detective, they just found the truck, the SUVs, hell, everything!”
“Not even five miles from here.”
Percy frowned. If they had already abandoned their vehicles, there might be no way to trace them. He looked at the officer.
“Car in the back of a semi-trailer, empty, two SUVs, one with damage to its front end. Just like some of the witnesses said.”
“Shit!” muttered Jamie. “This is big, Boss.”
Percy nodded. “Make sure the area is secure, get crime scene over there, tell dispatch we’re on our way.”
The officer nodded and got on his radio as Percy jogged toward their car, Jamie at his side.
“What do you think, Boss?”
“I think this is bigger than we originally thought.”
Mona Reservoir, Utah
Jason Peterson woke when his head rapped against something hard. Wherever he was lying bounced again, and again his head smacked against the floor. His head throbbed, his brain an unfamiliar fog, the only feeling he could recall that was similar was the one and only time as a freshman in college that he had gotten drunk. He had been drunk since, but nothing like this, and never again in college.
He had never lived it down.
Goaded into drinking by his roommate and lifelong friend to that point, he had agreed to have his first beer at eighteen. Then a second. Before he knew it, he had lost count, and lost track, of not only the number of drinks he had had, but the limbs he had under his control. He was told the next day he had had a good time, but had no recollection beyond waking up, lying across the bathroom counter of the dorm, his head in one of the sinks, with a few photos going around of the night that were too embarrassing to want to recollect.
The montage at the end of The Hangoverwas uncomfortably familiar.
He escaped with all his teeth, and unmarried, but swore off alcohol until he could drink around people he could trust to not put his mouth and other God given parts where they shouldn’t be.
And the way his head felt now, was exactly how it had felt that morning on the bathroom counter.
He forced his eyes open, praying he wasn’t back in college. They burned and he immediately shut them. Instead he tried to listen, to cut through the white noise that seemed to consume his thoughts. He could hear a dull roar. And voices. Two voices. Talking loud enough to be heard over the roar of an engine.
He realized he was in the boat, not his college dorm, and his heart slammed against his chest as the memories flooded back. They had been rescued, then someone had said his name, then shot him. But hadn’t. It wasn’t a bullet, it was some sort of tranquilizer.
That explained the hangover.
He tried to listen to the voices. He could hear one, but didn’t recognize it. The other voice he couldn’t make out enough to say whether it was familiar or not. Straining against the roar of the boat’s engine that dominated his right ear which lay against the cool, metal surface, he tried to make out the words, but it was merely bits and pieces.
“…minutes…plane…to the rally…taken…north…paid…”
It meant nothing.
The boat turned, the entire vehicle banking to the right, sending him tumbling into the gunwale with a grunt. A grunt that attracted the attention of someone.
“This one’s awake.” The voice was uncomfortably close. “Should I tag him again?”
“Negative. You’re liable to kill him. We need him alive, and he has a heart condition.”
How did they know about that?
He had only been recently diagnosed with a thickening of the heart wall, caused by high blood pressure, the stress of his job and the realization he was responsible for what he had created, proving too much. The moment they had succeeded in their experiment, succeeded in the fifteen long years of research, he had at once rejoiced, then cried at the horror of it when activated.
It had so much potential for good.
But far more for evil.
And at that moment he knew how Robert Oppenheimer had felt when the first nuclear bomb was successfully tested.
Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
He felt a hand grab his shoulder, spinning him onto his back. He looked up, the world still a blur, but clear enough to see something dark move rapidly toward his head. An intense pain was followed by a sea of nothingness.
Detective Jack Percy stepped out of the car as his partner checked her teeth in the vanity mirror, then joined him. The area had already been cordoned off, and half the precinct seemed already on scene. It was exactly as described. Two SUVs and a semi-trailer. The scene commander waved at him and strode over.
“Detective Percy, Conway,” he said, nodding to both, his eyes lingering on Jamie’s model-like physique.
“What’ve you got for us, Sergeant Gates?” Percy let his tone indicate the ogling session was over. He glanced at Jamie but as usual she seemed to be ignorant of what had just happened.
When Jamie had made detective, every married guy had run for the hills, knowing damned well their wives would never let them work with her. Percy had volunteered, the poor girl not understanding why no one wanted to work with her, and seeming genuinely hurt as partner after partner refused the Lieutenant.
Percy’s partner was due to retire, so when he had heard what was going on, he walked over to the desk she was sitting at outside the LT’s office, and sat down beside her.
“Detective Percy. Jack.” He held out his hand. She had taken it, but only briefly made eye contact, her eyes wells of tears.
“So you’re the new detective?”
“Supposed to be. But nobody wants to partner with me.”
“And you don’t know why?”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m guessing they don’t want to work with a woman.”
“Think like a detective. This is the new millennium. Most of the guys around here post-date the old boys’ club. Separate yourself emotionally from the situation, and ask yourself why they don’t want to work with you.”
She dabbed her eyes dry, then looked at him.
“I don’t know. What else could it be?”
He had chuckled. “Oh, it’s because you’re a woman, all right. But again, ask yourself why.”
She frowned, eying the desks of two of the men who had already refused her, them whispering amongst themselves, stealing occasional glances at her.
Her eyes shot open and she smiled.
“Because they’re married?”
“And they’re afraid their wives will get jealous.”
“Two for two.”
“But why would they get jealous? We’re all professionals.”
“Conway, have you looked in a mirror lately?”
She blushed and turned away modestly.
“Anybody not married here?”
He shook his head. “Nope.” He stood up and knocked on the LT’s door. He waved him in and Percy opened the door, poking his head inside. “I’ll take her off your hands, LT.”