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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
ABANDONED BY THEIR GOVERNMENT, DELTA TEAM BRAVO FIGHTS TO NOT ONLY SAVE THEMSELVES AND THEIR FAMILIES, BUT HUMANITY AS WELL.
The Bravo Team is targeted by a madman after one of their own intervenes in a rape. Little do they know this internationally well-respected banker is also a senior member of an organization long thought extinct, whose stated goals for a reshaped world are not only terrifying, but with today’s globalization, totally achievable.
As the Bravo Team fights for its very survival, they are suspended, left adrift without their support network. To save themselves and their families, markers are called in, former members volunteer their time, favors are asked for past services, and the expertise of two professors, James Acton and his fiancée Laura Palmer, is requested.
It is a race around the globe to save what remains of the Bravo Team, abandoned by their government, alone in their mission, with only their friends to rely upon, as an organization over six centuries old works in the background to destroy them and all who help them, as it moves forward with plans that could see the world population decimated in an attempt to recreate Eden.
In The Circle of Eight USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy is at his best, weaving a tale spanning centuries and delivering a taut thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat from page one until the breathtaking conclusion.
"James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"
Though this book is part of the James Acton Thrillers series, it is written as a standalone novel and can be enjoyed without having read any of the previous installments.
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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For the bravest girl I know, my daughter.
In June 1979 an unknown person or group using the alias R.C. Christian, hired a granite company to build a monument to exacting specifications in Elbert County, Georgia.
It has become known as the Georgia Guidestones, and nicknamed the “American Stonehenge”.
The structure is inscribed in eight modern and four ancient languages including Babylonian, Classical Greek, Sanskrit and Egyptian hieroglyphs.
To this date nobody knows who built the monument, or why. However what is clear, is whoever they were had a message to deliver to us, for carved on these Guidestones are ten guidelines, or commandments, they wish us to follow:
Maintain humanity under 500,000,000 in perpetual balance with nature.
Guide reproduction wisely — improving fitness and diversity.
Unite humanity with a living new language.
Rule passion — faith — tradition — and all things with tempered reason.
Protect people and nations with fair laws and just courts.
Let all nations rule internally resolving external disputes in a world court.
Avoid petty laws and useless officials.
Balance personal rights with social duties.
Prize truth — beauty — love — seeking harmony with the infinite.
Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.
Though it is disturbing to not know who would have the gall and power to build a monument then abandon it for the State to maintain, what is more disturbing is how they intend to deliver on their guidelines. For if they were to succeed in implementing them, over 90% of the human population would need to be wiped out.
“Professor Acton, I will count to ten, and if you do not tell me what I want to know, she dies.”
The hood over his head was suddenly torn away, the light glaring at him blinding. Professor James Acton tried to raise his hands to block it but they were bound behind him by what felt like a zip tie rather than handcuffs, the hard plastic biting into his wrists.
“Wait!” he yelled, leaning forward in the unforgiving chair he was bound to, peering into the darkness behind the light, trying to find the source of the voice. “I don’t even know what you’re talking about! What do you want to know?”
“Two,” said the voice. “We want to know where it is.”
His heart was already slamming into his chest from their ordeal. Police had burst into their room, arrested them, thrown them in the back of a police vehicle, and then drugged them. He had been awakened only moments before with a slap to his hooded face.
“Where is what?” he cried as his eyes finally adjusted. He still couldn’t see who was asking the questions, they were hidden in the darkness, behind the light, but he could see Laura, sitting in a chair of her own, facing him, tears running down her cheeks, her mouth gagged so she could say nothing, all he could hear were her sobs. He turned to the darkness. “If you hurt her!” But he didn’t finish his sentence.
“Three,” echoed the voice. “We will not hurt her, Professor Acton. We will kill her. I promise she won’t feel a thing.”
“I don’t know what you’re looking for!” he yelled, then sucked in a breath, trying to calm himself down, fearful he might anger them and speed up the count. His stomach was in turmoil, like butterflies had filled it and were now desperate to get out. He was pumped full of so much adrenaline his hands were shaking and he was sweating profusely, his chest soaked, his forehead dripping. “Please, tell me more. I’ll tell you anything you want, just don’t hurt her. I just need to know more about what you’re looking for.”
Professor Laura Palmer, his fiancée, the love of his life, the first woman he had ever truly loved, who excited him in every way a woman should despite their relationship approaching three years, fixed hers on him. He looked into her eyes, trying to convey that love to her, and he could tell she knew how he felt, and how sorry he was.
“Four.” His ears roared with the sound of his blood pumping. “We want the Catalyst, Professor.”
“The Catalyst? I’ve never heard of it. What is it?”
“Five.” He felt himself becoming lightheaded. He widened his stance for balance, the zip ties holding his ankles to the chair legs giving him little play. Taking in several deep, slow breaths, he tried to steady his racing heart. “It is something that we once possessed, and was lost to us centuries ago.”
His heart was still slamming in his chest, but he was beginning to regain control. He had to be careful. It seemed apparent that every time he spoke, and they responded, their captor would increase the count. He had at most five more questions before his beloved would be dead.
“What makes you think I have it?”
“Six.” Acton strained as hard as he could against his bonds, but nothing. “You were seen holding it in a photograph.”
Acton’s mind began flicking through every photograph he could ever remember having been taken of him, but there were thousands if not more, and he quickly found himself only seeing photographs of Laura, smiling, laughing, kissing him in self-shots.
“If you show me the photograph, then I’ll know what you’re talking about.”
He heard footsteps echo through the room, the sounds giving him the impression it was large, mostly empty, little to absorb the sounds bouncing off its walls. Suddenly a robed figure entered the light, the long flowing dark brown cloth silhouetted against the light, the face nothing more than a black emptiness.
The voice still came from the background, not from the man in front of him. A photograph was shoved in front of his face, and it took a moment for his eyes to refocus. It was him with several of his students, each holding a different object. He remembered it instantly. “That’s from the south of France, just outside St. Tropez,” he blurted, elated he was finally able to answer a question and perhaps save Laura. “I was asked to inventory a private collection; some billionaire had died. There were hundreds of pieces. Over a thousand, actually. Are you saying that one of these items is your Catalyst?”
“Please! Which one? Which artifact?”
A finger pointed to a cube being held by one of his students.
“That? That’s the Catalyst? We didn’t know what it was so we just catalogued it.”
“Nine.” The man in the robe retreated into the darkness. “Where is it?”
“But that was over ten years ago! I don’t know where it is,” he cried, tears welling in his eyes as he knew he had no way to give them what they wanted. All he could think to do was to keep talking, not give the man a chance to end his count. “All we did was catalog the collection, then it was sold at auction, I think. We didn’t keep any of the pieces. I’m sure if you check the auction they’ll tell you who bought it!”
“So then you can’t tell us where it is.”
“No, but I can find out. I’ll do whatever it takes. Please! I’m begging you! Please don’t hurt her! Kill me instead. Shoot me! She has nothing to do with this! I didn’t even know her back then.”
“Oh God, Laura! I’m so sorry! I love you! I love you!” He struggled against his bonds, shifting in the chair, pulling with all his might, blood flowing down his wrists as the plastic sliced through the skin. He pushed forward hard, trying to get as close to her as he could, but it was all to no avail. She was sobbing freely now, her face red, her eyes pleading, crying through the gag, he could tell she was shouting that she loved him too.
Footsteps echoed, then the dark robed figure stepped between him and Laura, a gun held in the man’s right hand.
“No, please! I’ll do anything!”
The man raised his right foot and pushed Laura’s chair over. It collapsed backward and Acton lost sight of her as she fell behind the light that had illuminated her. The man stepped into the darkness and Acton heard the most precious thing in his life scream.
Then the crack of a gunshot broke his heart for the last time.
Security Office, Le Grand Hotel, Geneva, Switzerland One week earlier
First Sergeant Phil “Stucco” Reeves shivered, grabbing his arms in a hug, rubbing his hands up and down as he stood up.
“Cold?” asked Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson as he sipped a coffee that was still piping hot. “Coffee’s fresh and a hell of a lot better than back at The Unit.” Dawson was in command of Delta Team Bravo, a unit of the elite Delta Force, arguably the best counter-terrorism unit in the world, but not necessarily baristas when it came to making coffee. At Le Grand Hotel in Geneva however, they had access to some of the best.
Especially when the night manager was sweet on one of your men.
Stucco, the man in question, shook his head as he continued to hug himself, walking about the tight security room, the screens flashing images of the entire hotel. They were on a babysitting mission, the Secretary of State meeting with various representatives from the Middle East and other “concerned” states. There had been a specific threat against him from reliable sources so security was beefed up beyond the normal Secret Service guards.
“Nah, just got a shiver. Like someone walked on my grave.”
“I didn’t know you were superstitious,” said Sergeant First Class Will “Spock” Lightman. “Explains a few things.”
“Yeah, like how he tosses shells over his shoulder when he drops a mag,” offered Master Sergeant Leon “Atlas” James, his impossibly deep voice echoing through the tiny room.
“Or when he breaks a mirror it’s bad luck unless he cancels it out by saving a black cat.”
Stucco looked at Spock, mimicking his signature trademark by cocking an eyebrow.
“You guys really need new jokes.”
“Bah, you just want us to find a new target,” said Spock with a knowing glance at Atlas.
Stucco turned to the screen to watch the night manager hurry down the hallway.
“Do you guys even understand what a figure of speech is?”
“Umm, the stripper the announcer’s talking about at Sharky’s?”
Dawson snorted his coffee, trying to remain slightly professional as he kept his eyes on the screens. At this hour however there was little going on. He had a two man team on the Ambassador’s door full time, Atlas and Spock were manning the security room, while he and Stucco were roamers. At the moment they were taking five.
There was a knock at the door.
“That’ll be Maria,” said Stucco, jumping up to get the door. Spock and Atlas exchanged grins, jumping to the wrong conclusion. Stucco had already told Dawson about how much Maria Esposito reminded him of his little sister back home, almost “a spitting image” with many of the same mannerisms. Stucco now seemed to have taken on the big brother role of being her protector, though she didn’t know it, her responses to his attentiveness one of what any young girl might have to a good looking, slightly older man with a gun.
But Stucco, stuck in little sister mode, didn’t notice, and instead kept leading her on unintentionally by paying her too much attention.
“Maria!” he demonstrated as he opened the door. “And how are you tonight?”
Maria beamed a smile at Stucco then nodded to the rest of the room.
“Tired, but hoping one day to move up to day manager.”
“That’s life!” said Stucco, motioning to his chair. “You have to put in your dues before you get the big seat.”
Maria’s head bounced in agreement.
“Sometimes I wonder if I chose the right career. I should have gone into brain surgery or something.”
The room was silent.
She burst out laughing.
“You guys are too polite. You remind me of Canadians! I’m just joking. Do you think if I had the grades for medical school I would be here?”
Stucco laughed as did the others, when Dawson saw something on the screen. He leaned forward and pointed.
“We’ve got activity on the Ambassador’s floor.”
Maria leaned in and looked.
“Oh Christ,” she muttered. “That’s that asshole Martin Lacroix. Big wig at the World Bank. Completely full of himself. He’s constantly criticizing our staff, complains at all hours, makes demands, insists we make things off menu.” She shook her head. “He’s a pig.”
“And apparently popular with the ladies,” said Atlas as they watched him groping a girl one third his age against the wall next to his room. “I’d say ‘get a room’ but that would be redundant.”
“Does this guy not have any shame?” asked Spock.
“I don’t know about shame, but he should know that all this stuff is on camera,” said Dawson.
Suddenly the girl pushed Lacroix away, slapped him, and stormed toward the elevator.
“Spock, Niner here. We’re hearing some shouting from our position. Do you have anything on camera, over?”
Spock activated his mike.
“Just a lovers’ quarrel. Nothing to worry about.”
The girl left on the elevator and Lacroix entered his room, the excitement over. Maria looked at the coffee service.
“Can I get anything for you gentlemen? More coffee, something from the kitchen?”
“Don’t worry about it,” replied Stucco. “If we need anything, we’ll call them ourselves. You’ve got more important things to do than wait on us.”
“More important maybe, but not more entertaining,” she replied, casting a glance at Stucco and blushing.
Stucco smiled, still not getting it, and pointed at Spock and Atlas.
“Now don’t you two give her a hard time when I’m gone.”
“Wouldn’t dream of it,” replied Spock.
“I’m renowned for being a perfect gentleman,” boomed Atlas.
Dawson rose from his chair.
“Time we got back on our rounds.”
Stucco nodded and was about to say something when Maria’s phone beeped on her hip. She grabbed it and read the message then hit the speed dial.
“What is it this time?” she asked, sounding exasperated. She listened, shaking her head more and more as the person on the other end of the line explained something. “And when did we last clean his room?”—“And that was after he left it this morning?”—“And he hasn’t been back until now?”—“And you’re sure we cleaned it?”—“He said what?”—“Fine. I’ll go tell him personally.”
She ended the call, looking around the room.
“Sorry about that. It’s our favorite guest. He’s demanding we send a maid to clean his room, which was already cleaned, and that she better be sexy.”
Stucco’s eyebrows raced up his forehead as his head dipped toward his chest.
“Exactly. What a pig!” She put her hand on the door knob. “I need to go tell our honored guest that there is no maid service at this time of night.” She opened the door. “Let me know if you need anything.”
The door closed and Dawson watched as one of the cameras showed her heading for the elevators.
“Man, she reminds me so much of my little sis,” sighed Stucco.
“Eww!” exclaimed Spock. “That’s just wrong!”
Dawson laughed, opening the door and stepping into the hallway.
“I’ll explain it to you on the way,” he said, holding the door.
Stucco, still puzzled, joined him in the hall and they made their rounds mostly in silence. As they rode up the elevator to the Secretary of State’s floor, Stucco turned to Dawson.
“They actually thought I was attracted to her?”
Dawson nodded, battling to suppress the smile desperate to break out.
“That’s so wrong!” exploded Stucco. “That’s my little sister! Well, you know what I mean.”
“I hear yah.”
“Aw, man!” muttered Stucco as the doors opened. “My sister!”
Dawson looked left, and all was clear. The Secretary of State’s room was to the left, but their job was to check the floor for anything unusual then switch off with Sergeants Carl “Niner” Sung and Gerry “Jimmy Olson” Hudson.
“Oh my God!” exclaimed Stucco. Dawson’s head jerked right to see Stucco racing toward Maria as she stumbled out of the pig Lacroix’s room, falling into Stucco’s arms as the door shut behind her. When Dawson arrived Stucco already had her lying on the floor, her bloodied face almost unrecognizable, her shirt torn off, hanging from her wrist, her bra missing, her skirt hiked all the way revealing her panties had been removed.
“What happened?” cried Stucco.
“Help me!” she whispered, her voice barely audible.
“Did he do this to you?” demanded Stucco, pointing at the door.
“H-he raped me!” she cried.
Dawson stood up, standing back from the scene as he activated his mike.
“Spock, we’ve got a problem. Contact local authorities. There’s been a rape. We’re going to need police and an ambulance, over.”
“Spock here, Atlas is contacting them now. I’ve got you on camera. Please tell me”—there was a pause, and the voice that continued was subdued—“tell me that it isn’t Maria.”
“Sorry, but it is. Better contact the day manager.”
Another pause, then all business.
“Roger that. Let us know if you need anything.”
“Better wake the others, we’re going to be busy here so we’ll need them to cover our rounds.”
There was a roar from behind him and Dawson spun to see Stucco kick open the door to the World Bank honcho’s room. Before Dawson could get there Stucco was already inside, yelling for blood. Dawson rushed into the room and found Stucco with the naked man by the throat shoving him toward the ground. The man’s head slammed into the carpet, and Stucco rained blow upon blow on the man’s face while screaming obscenities at him, each syllable emphasized with a punch.
Dawson grabbed Stucco and hauled him off the now crying man, the coward begging for Stucco to stop. As soon as he was freed of his attacker he scrambled to the other side of the room, cowering in the corner, covering himself with a pillow taken from a couch.
Stucco struggled to free himself from Dawson’s iron grip as Dawson tried to calm him.
“Take it easy, you got him. The police are on their way,” said Dawson.
“Let me at him, BD. That bastard has to pay for what he’s done!”
“And he will. In a court of law. Now how about you go watch Maria until help arrives?”
This seemed to work, Stucco relaxing slightly.
“I’m okay,” he muttered and Dawson let him go. Stucco left the room and Dawson turned to the naked man.
“Now you just stay put until the police get here, or what he did to you will seem like a light spanking.”
The man stood up, still pressed into the corner, showing no shame in his nudity, though a forbidden locker room glance showed Dawson the man should be. The man grabbed a robe from the back of a chair and put it on, tying the belt with a snap, the cowardly SOB beginning to transform into the arrogant pig that Maria had described.
Dawson looked about the suite, larger even than the Secretary of State’s, but then this was the World Bank, unanswerable to anyone on how they spent our money, its financing in the form of taxes paid by Western governments to the organization based on treaties signed long ago by people no longer in power, without the knowledge or understanding of most voters in the contributing countries.
To his left there was a large table filled with stacks of files, color coded maps, and paperwork spread across it. He walked over to it, something catching his eye, several black folders with what appeared to be a large rose with a Christian cross in the center, embossed on the covers, the design intriguing.
“Don’t look at those!” yelled the man.
Which made Dawson all the more curious, but as a trained soldier, he understood his job. And this wasn’t it. But it also wasn’t to obey the orders of rapists.
Dawson looked at the man who had puffed himself out to look far more important than he had moments ago.
“I must insist you leave my room at once.”
“Why? So you can have a shower and try to wash away the evidence?”
“Evidence of what?”
Dawson’s eyebrows shot up.
“Evidence of what?” he repeated. “Are you kidding me? You just raped a woman.”
“I did no such thing,” said the man, lighting a cigarette in the non-smoking room, the small plastic signs displayed in several places, not the least of which was the very table he was standing beside. Dawson had met people like this on many occasions, almost always government of some type, who thought the rules didn’t apply to them because of a title bestowed upon them that indicated I’m better than you.
“The woman lying in the hallway beaten to a pulp and stripped nearly naked will most likely disagree.”
The man took a long drag on his cigarette then smiled.
“She was a willing participant.”
Dawson wanted to tear the man’s throat out. It would be worth ending his career killing a man like this.
“We’ll let the police decide.”
“If the police set one foot in this room, you and anyone you care about are dead.”
Dawson took several steps toward the man, raising a finger and pointing at him.
“I highly suggest you learn to shut that mouth of yours. You’ll find that threats usually result in broken bones around me. Understand?”
The man’s bravado broke for a split second as he took a step back, his hand shaking as he took another pull on his cigarette. The broken door was pushed aside and several policemen entered. Dawson stepped aside, the four men spreading out, quickly searching the suite to see if anyone else was present. A fifth man in plainclothes entered, his suit and ankle length jacket suggesting he was a detective.
“I am Inspector Pierre Laviolette of the Geneva Police. What is the problem here?” asked the man in French.
Lacroix immediately began to spout off when Dawson interrupted, pulling out his fake Secret Service ID.
“I’m Special Agent White, assigned to the United States Secretary of State’s security detail. Perhaps I can be of assistance.”
Inspector Laviolette raised a hand, cutting off Lacroix.
“You are American?” he asked in accented, but excellent English.
“Yes, sir.” Dawson showed him his ID.
“And the man outside?”
“Part of our detail.”
“This man”—Laviolette cocked his head at Lacroix—“claims that the other man assaulted him for no reason.”
“Untrue. M. Lacroix physically assaulted and most likely raped the young woman outside.”
“He claims she was a willing participant in rough sex.”
Dawson kept control of his anger, but just barely.
“I know this woman, and was there when she was called to this room. She’s the hotel’s night manager, and was coming here to tell M. Lacroix that his request for a sexy maid to clean his room would not be fulfilled. M. Lacroix returned to this hotel from an unknown location less than an hour ago, had an altercation with a woman he was with in the hallway, which resulted in her leaving, and M. Lacroix then entered his room and moments later requested a ‘sexy’ maid to clean his already cleaned room. I think his intent was clear.”
“Listen, do you have any idea who I am?” yelled Lacroix from the corner. “I’m—”
“I know very well who you are, monsieur, and I strongly advise you to not say anything.” He motioned to the other officers. “Arrest him. Suspicion of assault and rape.”
Two officers grabbed the man, handcuffing him as he cursed in various foreign languages, finally settling on English, glaring at Dawson.
“Forget what you saw here today, or you and your friend will pay dearly.”
Dawson didn’t respond, instead glancing at the table of documents, then back at Lacroix.
“You were warned,” growled the man as he was led outside. As he disappeared through the door, he proved he wasn’t finished. “Slut!” yelled Lacroix, to which a flurry of curses burst from Stucco’s mouth, out of sight of Dawson as the door closed.
Alone, the inspector looked at Dawson, his face grave.
“This will probably end my career. Both of our careers. But this man has to be stopped.”
“What do you mean?”
“You really don’t know who this man is?”
“Not really. He wasn’t my concern, vetted by another team since he was staying on the same floor. My understanding is he’s a high ranking member of the World Bank, clean record, respected in his profession, a patron of the arts, and disliked by this hotel’s staff.”
“He is all that, and he is also suspected in over a dozen rapes across the world, all of which have been covered up with what you Americans I think call ‘hush money’, or worse. He is rich, very powerful, and in his world, our laws don’t apply.”
Dawson frowned. “In my world he’d be assassinated.”
Laviolette smiled slightly, looking at Dawson.
“I’ve dealt with Secret Service many times. You are not Secret Service.”
Dawson ignored the statement.
“What can we expect next?”
“It depends on how far she wants to take it. Normally they’re offered more money than they can ever hope to make in the next decade or two, and they take it. That will be the end of it. If she chooses to pursue it to court, then the witnesses might get bribed, or worse.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time that somebody has died at the hands of this man’s security force.”
Köln, Germany 1472 AD
Dietrich kissed Heike for the last time with a passion he didn’t know he had in him. It was enough for him to question his decision, and as she moaned in his arms, their forbidden love swelled in his chest and at that moment his decision was made.
“I love you,” he whispered as their lips broke.
“And I you, my darling,” replied Heike, staring into his eyes, lost in their little world. He a doctor, she the daughter of a local cobbler. They were in different stations, her father fairly well off, expecting her to marry a business man whose family would complement their own. A doctor was not in her father’s plans. Certainly he made a reasonable living, and since he had been invited to join The Order five years ago, his lot had improved greatly, but doctors were still not considered an honorable profession unless you needed one, then they were as holy as priests.
He grabbed her, pulling her in tightly, and his heart and head united in their decision. Despite the warnings, despite everything he had to lose, they would be together, forever.
And he would have to tell his master that his future apprentice could be his no longer, for his heart belonged to another.
The thought of that encounter caused both his heart and mind to falter. Not in doubt that he loved Heike, of that there was no doubt. But in fear. For the master was terrifying. Insanely intelligent, impossibly prescient. He could read people so well, it was as if he knew what they were thinking, and he never corrected anyone who might think he could indeed read their mind.
It had been a moment like that just this morning that had sent his heart racing in terror.
“If you are to be my apprentice tomorrow, you must give up any notion of love, of being with a woman in any way other than carnally. Marriage is forbidden to us, bachelorhood our sworn commitment.”
“I understand, my master.”
“Are you certain?”
His question had made Dietrich pause as he debated on what to say. He decided to err on the side of caution.
“I will end it with her tonight, my master.”
“I am pleased you admitted to it, my son. Should you not have, you would not have become my apprentice tomorrow.”
Dietrich had bowed deeply, then left the master’s chambers, immediately seeking Heike out. They had spent the evening together as he tried to figure some way to tell her it was over, but every moment together was agony, his love growing with each touch, each glance, each shared laugh and smile.
But what will the master do?
It was a terrifying thought. He had never heard of an apprentice rejecting his master before. He had of course heard of apprentice’s dying during training, and he wondered if they had indeed died from it, or had been executed for betraying their masters.
“Are you cold, my darling?”
“How could I be cold when you warm my heart so?” he asked, enveloping her in his arms. Suddenly he pushed her back, holding her by both shoulders. “If we are to do this, we must do it tonight.”
“What, my darling? What do you mean?”
“We must tell your father of us, and if he does not bless our union, then we will leave this place and start a new life elsewhere, far away, where no one knows us, where no one can judge us.”
She threw herself into his arms, clawing at his back as she wept.
“Yes oh yes, my darling! I only want to be with you, forever!”
Dietrich took her hand and they quickly made their way toward her home at the top of the cobblestoned street as a gentle mist began to fall. He heard a foot scrape down an alley and he turned to see who might be there, but he saw nothing, including the robed figure ensconced in the darkness.
Martin Lacroix Residence, Republic of San Marino Present Day
“This meeting of the Circle of Eight is called to order.”
The voice was deep, hollow, serious. In the entire time Doctor Martin Lacroix had heard it, he had never once sensed any emotion, any compassion, any passion. It was as cold a voice as any he had encountered, the bottom end rolling like distant thunder through his earphones, the images on the screen cloaked in the traditional brown robes, faces hidden in the shadows of their hoods.
He had met Number One on many occasions, but to describe him would be impossible. He was of average height, his build hidden by the robes, but the boney hands suggested he was thin, and the lack of liver spots or severe wrinkling suggested he wasn’t as aged as some in The Circle. But with the knowledge and money available to The Circle, the state-of-the-art research they had access to, one’s age was no longer as easy to guess as it once was.
Anti-aging treatments were one of the most compelling reasons to join The Order. What once was science fiction had become science fact. The ability to extend useful human life well past the century mark existed—it was simply expensive and not well known, as it created a two tiered society. Those with the money who could afford to extend their lives, and those without, doomed to die in their seventies or eighties, with the last ten or twenty years of their lives a growing set of chronic and painful problems that turned living into existing.
But not within The Order.
Medical experimentation was encouraged, hailed if successful, studied further if not. Members were welcome to volunteer for radical treatments that hadn’t yet even been approved for human testing, and it would be funded and performed by The Order. In fact, most cutting edge research had some sort of funding component from The Order’s various fronts, giving them access to all the research and materials necessary to conduct their own procedures.
It was fascinating, and each time Lacroix read of a new breakthrough that had been successfully tested on one of their own, his heart raced in excitement. Treatments abandoned by the mainstream scientific community because of their adverse effects on a small percentage, were embraced, The Order’s thinking that those who it didn’t help were simply inferior genetically. Why should those who weren’t be denied this knowledge?
And that was the fundamental driving force behind The Order. To gather knowledge, all knowledge—medical, scientific, historical—it didn’t matter. The Order particularly prided itself on collecting forgotten knowledge, forbidden knowledge. Forgotten knowledge had been their mainstay hundreds of years ago when they were founded, but over the past fifty years so much knowledge and wondrous advances had been made and forgotten due to politics and poor funding priorities, they had taken it upon themselves to preserve and expand upon it.
Sometimes these scientists were brought within the fold, usually unwittingly, and if they showed the correct attitude toward The Order’s philosophies, sometimes invited inside. And sometimes, like with himself, you made it into the ultimate inner circle, the Circle of Eight, the ruling council of The Order. Unknown to the membership except as shadowy figures who were to remain anonymous, their directives absolute, to be followed to the letter, without question.
He himself had been a member of The Circle for almost ten years, chosen by his master as his replacement almost thirty years ago. He had trained, learned the history, learned the forgotten sciences, and sworn allegiance to an organization over six hundred years old, and more powerful and anonymous than any he knew to be in existence. They were a secret, an absolute secret. Those in The Circle were sworn to remain bachelors with no connections that they may betray their secrets to. They were responsible for choosing their own replacements before they died, the identities held secret until the day of their deaths when a secret messenger would deliver the identity, and the person, to the swearing in ceremony that occurred exactly seven days after death.
And today, this impromptu meeting over secure channels was because of him. Because of his error, his screw-up, his inability to control his sexual urges.
They’ll have you killed one day.
“Gentlemen. We have a problem. Or should I say, we once again have a problem, with Number Eight,” said Number One.
“Again?” asked another, his voice filled with the exasperation Lacroix was certain they all felt for him. Even he felt it about himself. If he remained sober, he was usually fine, but as soon as that first glass of wine or scotch graced his lips, he was drinking for the night, then determined to have female companionship, whether she willingly participated or not.
But in Geneva he had crossed a line.
And got caught.
“This is getting ridiculous,” said another.
“Agreed,” rumbled Number One. “How do you propose to solve this problem, Number Eight?”
Lacroix looked over his shoulder at the door that had remained closed since his apprentice had left.
Where is he?
He took a drink of water to moisten his suddenly dry mouth, then leaned toward the microphone sitting on his desk.
“I have an operative identifying all of the witnesses involved, and should have a report shortly.”
“And what do you intend to do?”
“They will be paid off, or otherwise encouraged to remain silent.”
“But there is something unique about this encounter, is there not?” rumbled Number One’s voice.
“Y-yes,” said Lacroix, his voice cracking at having to admit it to The Circle. “I had several of our files in plain sight, and they were seen.”
Cursing and other sounds filled his headset as The Circle erupted in anger. At that moment the door behind him opened and he turned to see his apprentice enter, a grave expression on his face. Lacroix motioned for him to hurry up.
His apprentice rushed over, handing him a file.
“We have a problem,” he whispered.
“What is it?”
He flipped through the folder and stopped on a page showing the Secret Service agent who had beaten him. His apprentice pointed lower on the page.
“The usual payoffs will not be enough,” said one of The Circle. “They must be silenced.”
Lacroix cleared his voice, leaning in again.
“Gentlemen, we may have a bigger problem than I thought.”
“Explain,” said Number One.
“The men we thought were Secret Service aren’t.”
“Then what are they?”
Stucco’s Residence, Maas Drive, Fort Bragg, North Carolina
Stucco stood on the doorstep of his military issue residence, it a small, old, humble and perfectly adequate home that they could call their own while he was stationed in Fort Bragg. Most of the married guys in The Unit lived within a five minute walk of each other, the single guys either in barracks or off base in their own apartments.
But all close, all within shouting distance if anyone needed help with something, or just wanted to hang out and shoot the shit. Or shoot something. It was a family. A big family that extended far past The Unit, and far past the base. The military was a family. When one died, everyone hurt. When one did something heroic, they all felt the pride.
It was something that had been missing from his life, his own dad having abandoned him and his mother when he was three, only showing up a few times in his life, mostly to argue with his mother. But he hadn’t shown up when his mother had died, killed by a drunk driver. He had been ten. The rest of his life was spent bouncing from foster home to foster home, the system never able to find him parents willing to adopt a kid so old that was a “problem child”.
He had to admit it now that he was older and a father himself that he had been acting out. I was a holy terror! The hell he put those foster parents through wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t until he was sixteen when he was at yet another home, pulling the same shit, that the family’s eldest son had returned home from Afghanistan, all spiffy in his crisp Marine uniform, that he stood up and paid attention. The young marine sergeant had taken him under his wing for the four weeks he was visiting, then returned to Afghanistan.
Stucco had signed up the day he turned eighteen, opting for the Army, and eventually working his way up to Sergeant and a position in the Delta Force. It had been the proudest day of his life, and though he had no parents to share his success with, he had found the woman of his dreams, Sheila, and they had married between tours in Iraq, and about a year later, little Christa was born. She was six now, tall enough to answer the doorbell he had rung, but there was no answer.
It was a ritual. He’d come back from an op and surprise them on the doorstep. Christa had always delighted in the surprise, and Sheila too. It had started with a forgotten key, and the joy on their faces had made it something he wanted to see every time he came home, so now he never unlocked the door himself.
He always waited for them to answer.
But it was never this long.
He rang again, checking the driveway for the umpteenth time.
The car’s still there!
He put his ear to the door, but heard nothing.
He shrugged his shoulders. It wouldn’t be the first time they hadn’t been home when he got back. With the wives a close knit family when their husbands were off on ops, it wouldn’t surprise him if they were off with one of the other families in the park.
He fished his key from his pocket and unlocked the door, pushing it open. He stepped inside and could smell something amazing wafting its way from the kitchen.
“Hi hon, it’s me! You home?”
He heard a sound in the kitchen and dropped his duffel bag in the entrance, kicking off his shoes as he made his way down the hall toward the tiny seventies style kitchen, Sheila’s one complaint about their home.
He turned the corner and cried out at what he saw.
Colonel Thomas Clancy’s Office, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta HQ, Fort Bragg, North Carolina A.k.a. “The Unit”
“You realize the shit storm you’ve created for me, Sergeant Major?”
Command Sergeant Major Burt Dawson nodded as he stood at attention, his boss, Colonel Thomas Clancy sitting behind his desk, barking at him while he had a pencil tightly clamped between his teeth as he continued to battle his addiction to cigars. It flicked up and down with each syllable, a constant distraction that if it weren’t for the verbal tirade the pencil seemed to be conducting, it might be comical.
“Yes, sir!” he replied, realizing full well what was going on, the State Department representative standing to the right of Clancy almost smiling in glee.
“What the hell were you two thinking getting involved in a civilian situation like that?” Clancy held up his hand. “Don’t answer that! I know damned well what you were thinking! Nothing! You weren’t thinking a damned thing! You were acting on instinct, just like we trained you! To protect innocent lives, wherever they may be! I understand that! Don’t you think I understand that? But that wasn’t your job! Your job was to protect the Secretary of State! Not a hotel maid”—Dawson decided not to correct him—“then assault one of the most powerful men in the world!” Clancy sucked in a lungful of air then ripped the pencil from his mouth, tossing it aside. “You and your team are suspended from duty until this mess is straightened out. Understood?”
“Now get out of my office!”
Dawson snapped a salute for show, then spun on his heel and exited the room, closing the door behind him. He winked at the smiling Maggie, Colonel Clancy’s longtime secretary, who knew exactly what was going on.
A show for the State Department.
Clancy would never actually punish men in his unit for saving a woman from a rapist. Dawson was already scheduled for a second meeting once the State Department rep had left. He made his way to the cafeteria and grabbed a bottle of water. Chugging half of it down, his phone buzzed.
He would have figured the young husband would be well into some post-op nookie by now, not calling his “boss”.
“Hey, Stucco, what’s up?”
“BD! You gotta help me!”
Dawson tossed his bottle in the sink, rushing for the door, the panic in his friend’s voice obvious.
“What is it?”
“I don’t know what to do! My wife, my kid, oh my God, BD! I think it’s him. It has to be. It has to be that bastard Lacroix!”
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
“You gotta help me, BD!”
There was a scream in the background that sounded like a woman’s.
The line went dead.
Dawson raced toward the parking lot, speed dialing Red, his trusted friend and second in command.
Red’s groggy voice answered. “Hey, BD, can’t a man sleep after an op?”
“Something’s wrong at Stucco’s. Just got a weird call from him and heard Sheila scream. Get a team together, meet me there, and let the Colonel know what’s going on. I’m on my way now.”
“Consider it done,” came the alert reply.
Dawson jumped in his 1964½ poppy red Mustang convertible and started it up, gunning it toward the married quarters and his friend.
Köln, Germany 1472 AD
Dietrich held Heike’s hand, their fingers intertwined as they pushed their way up the steep road to her father’s house, perched on the hillside with a spectacular view of the Rhine river below. It was dark now, a little light provided by the mostly blocked out stars and a half moon, as well as the candle and firelight from inside the homes spilling out the cracks in the shuttered windows, lending a sheen to the quickly dampening cobblestones.
Another sound behind them and Dietrich turned. His heart raced up his throat as he saw a dark robed figure following them.
He urged Heike forward.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing. Let’s just get you inside before it starts to rain.”
She thankfully picked up her pace without further question, and he could tell by the tightening of her grip on his hand that she too was now frightened. More footsteps behind them and he broke out into a run without looking. As they passed each alleyway he would look down it and see another robed figure stepping out, and looking ahead he could see between each house a figure coming into view. Before they could reach the top of the hill a line of darkly robed figures blocked their way on all sides except their left, where a waist high wall protected pedestrians from the roaring river fifty feet below.
As they closed in upon them, Dietrich pulled the only weapon he had, a dagger, and moved toward the only wall without members of The Order blocking their way. He looked over the side at the river below, and knew it was too treacherous to attempt a jump. The rocks below, mostly hidden, the rushing water breaking upon their concealed stubbornness, seemed to glow a warning of their presence in the faint light.
The robed figures closed in on them as he held Heike behind him, his dagger held out in a useless threat, his arm trembling so much the blade threatened to clatter to the ground.
None of the approaching figures had any weapons displayed, but he knew they would be armed. They always were when robed. For they were The Order, of that he had no doubt.
He did the only thing he could think of.
“Master, if you are here, please listen. I told her it was over. We had one last kiss and I was bringing her home. Please, let her go, she has done nothing wrong.”
The Order were shoulder to shoulder now, forming a semi-circle of impenetrable human flesh, there now being nowhere to go but over the wall at their backs.
The figures parted and a lone figure stepped through, the ranks closing behind him as he stepped forward, stopping only inches from Dietrich’s outstretched dagger.
A hand reached forward, and he recognized it as his master’s immediately, a deep scar on the top from years ago revealed as the sleeve of the robe slipped up.
Dietrich relinquished the blade without protest, Heike gasping behind him.
“Master, please. I beg of you, let her go. She is but an innocent in this and knows nothing of us.”