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FROM USA TODAY BESTSELLING AUTHOR J. ROBERT KENNEDY
THE RUSSIAN PRIME MINISTER HAS BEEN ASSASSINATED.
THE WORLD STANDS ON THE BRINK OF WAR.
Russia accuses the United States of assassinating their Prime Minister in Hanoi, naming Delta Force member Sergeant Carl “Niner” Sung as the assassin.
Professors James Acton and Laura Palmer, witnesses to the murder, know the truth, and as the Russians and Vietnamese attempt to use the situation to their advantage on the international stage, the husband and wife duo attempt to find proof that their friend is innocent.
It is a desperate race against time as the innocent involved are hunted down without mercy. Facing impossible odds in a country where they have no friends and no hope of rescue, they stand alone.
From USA Today bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy, The Riddle is a heart pounding thrill ride spanning two millennia that pits Professors Acton and Palmer, along with members of the Delta Force’s Bravo Team, against the might of the Vietnamese military and the political machinations of the Kremlin itself.
"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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The Protocol Brass Monkey Broken Dove The Templar's Relic Flags of Sin The Arab Fall The Circle of Eight The Venice Code Pompeii's Ghosts Amazon Burning The Riddle Blood Relics Sins of the Titanic Saint Peter's Soldiers The Thirteenth Legion Raging Sun Wages of Sin Wrath of the Gods The Templar's Revenge
Rogue Operator Containment Failure Cold Warriors Death to America Black Widow The Agenda Retribution
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“The world is on the brink of a new Cold War. Some are even saying that it's already begun.”
Mikhail S. Gorbachev, November 8, 2014 On the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall
“If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die? And if you wrong us shall we not revenge?”
On June 28, 1914 the Archduke of Austria, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg, were assassinated in Sarajevo, Bosnia. A man named Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb, was the assassin of the future heirs to the Austro-Hungarian throne, the Empire a significant power in Europe.
Bosnia was insignificant in comparison.
The empire had existed at this point for 47 years.
It would be gone in four, one man and his gun triggering a war the likes of which the world had never seen.
And hoped would never see again.
Enter World War II, and almost fifty years of new conflicts, many of them proxy wars between Communism and Capitalism as part of the Cold War.
With the end of the Cold War the world thought peace might finally be at hand, but with a belligerent Russia inexplicably attempting to return to the old ways of the failed Soviet Union, many think the Cold War we thought long gone is already back.
And if it is, could a single event trigger another crisis that might lead to a third, and possibly final, world war?
A portion of this book recreates the night the Buddha died. It is inspired by the actual accounts of that evening, with fictional intrigue added, the death a backdrop to the historical portion of the novel.
No disrespect is intended.
Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi, Vietnam Present Day
Archeology Professor James Acton leaned forward, examining the ancient drum crafted by the Dong Son civilization of the Red River Delta in Northern Vietnam over two thousand years ago. Made of bronze and intricately carved, it was nearly three feet tall and according to their guide, weighed in at over two hundred pounds.
“It’s beautiful,” gushed his wife, Archeology Professor Laura Palmer as she circled the roped off artifact. “I’ve seen pictures of these but I’ve never seen one in person.”
Acton dropped to a knee. “Me neither.” His finger twitched, the overwhelming urge to reach out and touch the artifact killing him.
“Would you like to get closer?” asked their guide, Mai Lien Trinh, grinning.
Acton’s head bobbed rapidly, Laura slightly more dignified in her response. “Could we?”
“Only honored guests are allowed—” began Mai.
“I guess that means ‘no’,” winked Acton at Laura.
She gave him the eye.
Mai looked at him curiously, then apparently decided he must be joking. She lifted the belt from the retractable stanchion and waved them inside. It was almost symbolic, the barrier only a couple of feet from the drum, but Acton felt like he did the day Guns ’N Roses had released their Use Your Illusion double-album and the clerk at Tower Records off Broadway had unlocked the doors letting the gathered throng inside.
He had bought his two CDs and it had only cost him three hours in line and a Classical Literature class. He had torn the plastic wrapping off before he had even paid, clicking the first CD in his Sony Discman before handing over the cash to pay for his purchase, falling in love with Right Next Door to Hell before he had even left the store. By the time he had reached his apartment, Coma’s bass drum had him hypnotized.
It had been a great day.
His best friend and mentor, Gregory “Corky” Milton had chastised him, not understanding the appeal. “They’re pussy metal. Give me Megadeth or Metallica any day.”
“Don’t forget Anthrax!”
“Don’t act like you listen to it. You only like Bring the Noise, poser.”
Acton smiled at the memory as his fingers danced tantalizingly close to the ancient drum, tracing the repetitive carvings ringing the instrument.
“Fantastic!” he hissed as he bumped into Laura who was rounding it in the opposite direction.
“It is one of our greatest treasures. It is called the Ngoc Lu drum. It was discovered by accident south of Hanoi in 1893 by a crew building a dike. It is thought to be well over two thousand years old.”
Acton’s head bobbed in appreciation. “The carvings are remarkably well preserved. It almost looks like you could play it right now. He rose slightly, positioning his hands to play.
“No!” cried Mai.
Acton laughed, grinning at her. “Just joking.”
Mai’s hand darted to her heart as she ushered them outside the barrier, quickly blocking off the artifact once more.
“I’m sorry, Mai, I shouldn’t have scared you like that.”
Laura punched him in the shoulder. “No, you shouldn’t have.”
Mai smiled shyly. “I’m sorry, I’m just not used to dealing with Americans.”
“I’m British. We’re even stranger,” said Laura with a laugh. “At least to Americans.”
Mai shook her head then suddenly paled slightly as her eyes darted toward the entrance to the room they were in. “Oh no, we shouldn’t be here.”
Acton turned and saw a group of about ten or fifteen people enter, immediately recognizing the United States Secretary of State, Jill Atwater. She had several others with her, clearly American, several Vietnamese and a four man security team.
Acton smiled, recognizing two of them immediately, despite the dark sunglasses hiding where they were looking. The two who had entered the room first he knew quite well, Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson and Sergeant Will “Spock” Lightman, two members of the Delta Force’s Bravo Team. Acton took a step toward them to say hi when he noticed Dawson shake his head almost imperceptibly. He caught Laura by the arm as she made toward them.
“We don’t know them,” he whispered, turning to Mai. “Perhaps we should move on?”
Mai emphatically agreed, leading them to an archway that opened into another room, but before they could make it through, another delegation entered, blocking their path. Mai stepped aside, as did Acton and Laura, this delegation similar in nature to the American one, the center of attention vaguely familiar looking but the man’s name escaping him for the moment.
Until he heard them speaking Russian.
Anatoly Petrov, Prime Minister of Russia!
He whispered the name to Laura who nodded, taking another step backward. Neither of them were fans of the Russians, especially since they had reverted to their old Soviet ways. There was some debate among the group of friends on who had coined the term Soviet Union 2.0 first, Acton thinking he had, but Milton had begged to disagree. It didn’t matter who had come up with it first, it simply mattered that the nickname had stuck, and that it was far too apropos to be laughed at.
The Soviet Union was back, with oil money behind it, and Europe on its knees, too dependent upon Russian natural gas to heat their homes, leaving them powerless to counter Russian aggression in the Ukraine and elsewhere.
“Ahh, Secretary Atwater,” bellowed Petrov, holding his arms out as he stepped past his security. Acton saw Dawson imperceptibly nod at Spock as they both moved aside, allowing the two dignitaries to greet one another.
“Prime Minister Petrov, an unexpected pleasure.”
The smiles were genuinely forced, the long practiced art of diplomacy on display as Acton, Laura and their guide stood off to the side, both exits from the room now blocked with the two delegations.
“If I had known you were coming here today, I would have joined you,” said Petrov, shaking Atwater’s hand. “But our hosts neglected to mention it.” The look he gave the Vietnamese delegate who was accompanying him was withering in its polite disparagement.
“An oversight, I am sure,” mumbled the man, bowing deeply and taking a step back. “The appropriate people will be disciplined, I assure you.”
Petrov laughed, waving off the assurance. “No need. This is merely a pleasant coincidence, nothing more. Why should I care where the Secretary of State will be on any given day?”
Acton found it impossible to believe that Petrov hadn’t known exactly where Atwater would be, this being the highest level visit since the normalization of relations by President Clinton in 1995. It was all over the news with large crowds welcoming Secretary Atwater upon her arrival. Acton had been shocked to learn that almost 75% of the Vietnamese people had a favorable view of Americans—he had done a little research before accepting the invitation to visit the museum. It had been proffered by Professor Duc Tran while on exchange to St. Paul’s University where Acton taught archeology, and eagerly accepted. When they had arrived two days before Acton had been devastated to learn that Professor Tran had been killed in a car accident while they were in the air.
Mai had met them instead with the tragic news.
It was too late to simply turn around and Mai had convinced them that Professor Tran would have wanted them to complete their visit as a matter of honor. Tran was proud of his collection and Acton was anxious to see artifacts that few Americans had seen in nearly forty years.
They had agreed to stay.
If he had known the Russians were going to be here today, however, he might have suggested another venue to visit.
“I understand we are staying at the same hotel,” said Petrov.
“Yes, my team informed me that you had requested to stay there.”
Petrov’s eyes narrowed. “Odd, I thought we had booked first, and it was your people who wanted to stay at the same hotel as me.”
Atwater laughed—slightly. “I’m sure the truth must lie somewhere in the middle, Prime Minister. But not to worry, my security chief”—she nodded toward Dawson—“assures me the hotel is quite secure, so we are both safe.”
“As does mine,” said Petrov, nodding toward one of his own sunglass sporting men. “Perhaps you will do me the honor of joining me for dinner? I understand the restaurant in our secure hotel is quite excellent.”
Atwater smiled, her hands out, palm upward. “Unfortunately, Prime Minister, I have a full schedule. Perhaps another time?”
“I look forward to it,” bowed Petrov.
A Vietnamese man walked out from behind a tapestry, marching straight toward Prime Minister Petrov, gun extended in front of him, lead already belching from the barrel. Acton spun, extending his arms as they enveloped Laura and Mai, pulling them all to the ground. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Dawson and Spock grab Secretary Atwood and put themselves bodily between her and the shooter, the entire delegation exiting the room within seconds, apparently deciding ensuring the safety of their charge more important than taking out the shooter.
Looking over his shoulder he saw Petrov’s four security men down, the rest of his delegation gone, Petrov now alone with the man’s gun pressed against his chest.
“I swore the next time I saw you I would kill you,” said the man, his eyes narrowed, glaring up at the taller Petrov, his gun hand steady, there no fear here.
“Silence!” barked the man. “You do not recognize me, Anatoly Petrov?”
Petrov shook his head slowly. “Have we met?”
“Nineteen-seventy-four. You led the Viet Cong who massacred my village.”
Shouts could be heard, heavy boots drumming the marble floor as security from elsewhere in the building sped toward the shooting. Acton rose to his feet, still crouching, ushering Laura and Mai toward the opposite door, all the while keeping a wary eye on the shooter.
“I cleansed a lot of villages in those days, all sanctioned by the legitimate government.” He glared down at the man, one corner of his mouth curling into a smile. “You’ll have to be more specific.”
The gun was pressed harder against Petrov’s chest. The man reached into a bag hanging at his side, producing a clay bowl, painstakingly glued together from previously shattered shards. “Now do you remember?”
Petrov’s eyes popped wide, a smile spreading across his face. “Young Phong, is that you?”
The man nodded. “You remember me.”
“Of course I remember you,” said Petrov, the smile still in place, his arms open wide as if trying to set the man at ease. “I let you live!”
“After killing my mother and father and my entire village. After burning everything I had ever known to the ground.”
Petrov shrugged. “That was war. It has been over a long time.”
“Not for me.”
The man squeezed the trigger, the look of shock on Petrov’s face something Acton knew he’d never forget. Mai screamed, Laura slapping a hand over her mouth to prevent her own. The man stepped over Petrov’s gasping body, aiming the weapon at his head. “Today my village can finally rest.”
He squeezed the trigger one more time, blood and brain matter squirting across the floor.
Shouts from the security team were close now. The man looked at Acton then dove through a nearby window, shattering the glass with his body, disappearing from sight as the soldiers charged into the room, guns pointing at the only three people alive.
Acton and the others raised their hands as guns were pressed against their backs. Mai spoke rapidly to no avail, the weapons still held painfully in place as the room was secured. Another man entered whom Acton recognized from earlier introductions as the curator of the museum. His words succeeded in lowering the soldiers’ guns, and once removed, the three of them rose cautiously to their feet.
“I’m so sorry, Professor Acton, Professor Palmer. Of course you are not involved in this most unfortunate incident.”
“Did you catch him?” asked Laura.
“No, but we know who he is!” said the man, shaking a piece of paper. “The fool showed his ID when he entered!” He held the page up so they could see the enlarged face, a scan of the man’s identification card having been taken when he entered.
And it was everything Acton could do to not gasp.
For he recognized the face despite the poor copy.
It was Delta Team-Bravo member Sergeant Carl “Niner” Sung.
Kusinara, Malla Kingdom Near modern day Indian/Nepalese border 401 BC
For the Buddha was dying, deathly ill, and it was his fault. It was he who had provided him with his last meal, a dish made of his favorite local mushrooms, herbs and other delicacies from the lands surrounding their small village. It was a meal he had been proud to gather the ingredients for, a meal his hands had trembled in nervousness while preparing, and a meal he and his only son had delivered with pride, though pride wasn’t a virtue becoming of a follower of the Buddha.
He was disappointed in himself for feeling it, and he would meditate on it later tonight.
At least that was what he had planned.
Before he had killed the Buddha.
“He is an old man,” reassured Ananda, the Buddha’s personal attendant. “He was ready for Parinirvana which is why he travelled here. He knew before he even sat down to eat your delicious dish that this would be his final meal. He asked me to convey to you his thanks and assurances that your meal has nothing to do with his illness. He said your meal was a source of the greatest merit as it provided him his last sustenance before leaving his physical form and entering the next stage of existence.”
Cunda, still on his knees, his head nearly touching the floor as he humbled himself beside his son, turned his head to look up at Ananda. “H-he said that?”
Ananda nodded, reaching out a hand which Cunda accepted. Ananda pulled the bereaved man to his feet. “You are to be honored for your service in feeding the Buddha in his final hours.” Ananda turned and took a clay bowl, intricately hand painted, rings of colorful flowers and plants adorning it from top to bottom, and handed it to him. “He wanted you to have this.”
Cunda extended his hands, shaking more than earlier. His son’s hands covered his own, steadying him.
“I do not deserve such a gift.”
Ananda smiled. “The fact you say such a thing is proof you do.”
Cunda didn’t bother continuing to argue. “Why?” was all he could manage to ask.
“You came with a question for the Buddha and instead he asked you to prepare him a meal.”
Cunda nodded. It had been a challenge, this not his home, but he had managed to find the ingredients he needed and his wife had sent him with the traditional seasonings from their tiny village as part of their pilgrimage to see the Buddha and seek his advice.
It had been his duty and his honor to undertake this task, though it had left him bewildered and he had to admit, a bit angry. He had travelled for weeks, their journey grueling, but necessary. Their village had been beset by years of misfortune. Flash floods triggered by heavy rains had washed much of their village away only to be followed by two summers of drought leaving parched earth and a nearly dry riverbed. And once they thought their prayers had been answered and their crops had once again blossomed, raids by nearby villages to plunder their limited resources began under the guise of punishment for following the teachings of the Buddha.
He had come to the Buddha to seek an answer to the question that burned in his heart.
Should we leave our home to find peace elsewhere?
He had asked the question when granted an audience, but instead had been given the ‘honor’ of providing the Buddha with a meal.
No answer had been forthcoming.
And now he was given a clay bowl instead.
With the luck his village had been having, if word got out that he had provided the last meal before the Buddha had become violently ill they would be destroyed for certain.
“But what of my question? What is the Buddha’s advice?”
Ananda motioned toward the bowl. “The Buddha says, ‘Trust in what you see.’ Now go, we must prepare for the passing.”
Cunda and his son, Asita, were ushered out by guards and found themselves on the street, the sun having set only minutes before. Word of the Buddha’s illness had obviously spread, a large crowd already gathering around the home where the Buddha was staying as a guest.
“Is he okay?” asked one.
“What have you heard?” demanded another, grabbing Cunda’s arm. The clay bowl fell from his hands as his arm was torn away by the man demanding information.
Asita caught it, tucking it under his arm and grabbing his father, leading them away from the crowd.
“I-I’ve heard nothing,” he said, shame in the lie already gripping his chest.
“I heard he became sick after eating!” shouted a woman, her voice laced with anger. “Somebody must have poisoned him!”
Asita tugged on Cunda’s arm harder as he navigated them through the growing crowd as quickly as he could. Cunda continued to shake, his mind shutting down as the shouts grew, his heart fluttering in his chest as fear gripped him, his stride slowing.
“Come on!” hissed his son, squeezing his arm sharply, the pinch snapping him back to reality. “We have to get out of here before it’s too late!”
Cunda nodded, his surroundings coming back into focus as he picked up his pace, following his son through to the edge of the crowd toward a group of houses that led to their camp outside the village.
“That’s him there!” shouted someone. Cunda looked over his shoulder and nearly soiled himself as the entire throng turned toward him, someone pointing. “He’s the one who brought the meal!”
“He poisoned him!”
“He killed the Buddha!”
Asita and Cunda both broke into a sprint, the younger Asita quicker off the mark, darting between two houses, a narrow alleyway extending almost a dozen houses from the main village square they had just come from. They ran as fast as Cunda’s older legs could carry them, Asita continually slowing down to urge him forward, but Cunda was gripped in fear. He glanced over his shoulder once more as the crowd tried to shove its way through the narrow opening at the beginning of the alley.
And he tripped.
His left shoulder hit the ground hard, pain shooting through his body. Powerful hands had him in their grasp quickly, pulling him back to his feet as the crowd surged like ants over an obstacle, a flash flood of humanity on a previously dry riverbed.
Cunda drew his sword.
“Go!” he yelled to his son. “I will hold them off.”
“No, we will fight them together!” His son drew his own sword.
“No, there is only room for one to fight, and you must survive. Take the bowl and tell our village what the Buddha said. Seek the wisdom in his words.”
“But, Father, I can’t leave you!”
The first of the bloodthirsty crowd was almost upon them. “You must! If we both die, the Buddha’s words will be for nothing. Our village must be saved, and after today, you are its leader!”
He swung his sword hard, sweeping across the breadth of the alleyway, removing the head of one man, cleaving halfway through another.
“Go, my son! Now!” he shouted as he swung again at the leading edge of the crowd, suddenly slowed, pushed forward by the surge of flesh behind them. He raised the sword over his head and swung down, a startled man’s head splitting like a log, his blood spurting over the man beside him who screamed in fear, pushing back against the crowd-surge that would have him challenge the now recovered Cunda.
Cunda stole a glance behind him to see his son, halfway down the alley, backing away, keeping a pleading eye on his father, tears rolling down his cheeks as Cunda took another step back, swinging his sword, slicing through a fleeing man’s back, removing the outstretched arm of the man next to him.
He looked over his shoulder. “Pray for me!” he shouted, knowing the sins he was committing would condemn him to eternal damnation, the killing of so many unforgivable no matter the reason. He wasn’t a soldier with the luxury of war as an excuse, he was merely the leader of a simple village, leadership thrust upon him purely because of family lineage rather than popular choice.
A reluctant leader, a desperate leader.
He swung again but now saw swords held high nearing him as those who were unarmed tried to squeeze back through the alley, those with swords shoving forward to engage the murderer of the Buddha.
“You will be avenged, Father!”
He spun toward his son. “No! Do not avenge me! They know not what they do! They are blinded by lies and fear and hatred! Just go! Save yourself! Save our village!”
Metal scraped the ground behind him as a roar erupted from what sounded like an impossibly loud man.
Cunda swung around, his sword rising from near his ankles to waist height as he faced the enemy, the blade continuing upward, knocking the man’s blade aside and removing his hand.
But there were more blades now, rushing toward him, their owners desperate to get into the battle, blocked only by those in front of them. He swung furiously now, left and right, battling two blades at once, neither able to get a full swing at him, each blocking the other.
Yet he was tiring.
If energy weren’t his enemy, he could potentially hold them for hours, but it wasn’t, and with each one he took out of the battle, a fresh body faced him moments later.
He retreated another step and looked behind him.
Asita was gone.
Be safe, my son.
His heavy heart threatened to overwhelm him as he thrust forward, burying his blade into a man’s stomach. As he withdrew the man collapsed on Cunda’s sword, causing the blade to drop to the ground. He fell back several steps quickly, dragging his sword free but it was too late. A blade descended upon his left shoulder, burying itself deep. He screamed out in pain, grabbing the sharp metal with his left hand, pushing it up and out of his flesh, slicing through his palm as he did so.
He had no time to even look at the bloody stump that now lay dead on his shoulder, instead swinging weakly at the next thrust, his parry almost useless now.
His sword clattered to the ground.
His leg was sliced open and he dropped to his still good knee, his now free hand pushing against the dirt as he looked up at the attacker who had finally bested him.
Rage filled eyes, so much hate it was inconceivable in the heart of this simple villager, glared down at him, freezing his soul with fear, the descending death blow going almost unnoticed as time seemed to slow down. The crowd roared their anger, screams of pain echoed through the alleyway, swords clanged as they tried to get into the fight. His nostrils flared with the smell of his own blood and those of his victims, the smell enough to make his mouth fill with bile. The air, thick with a mist of carnage, had a metallic taste that mixed with the sickness in his mouth, threatening to make him gag.
And the agony in his neck, as the unnoticed sword sliced clean through, was mercifully short lived, his thoughts of the Buddha’s last words.
Trust in what you see.
And as his head tumbled to the ground, rolling several times, he died knowing he’d never decipher the riddle meant to save his people.
Outside the Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi, Vietnam Present Day
Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson nearly shoved the Secretary of State into the back of the armored limousine, jumping in after her as the driver floored it, the door closing of its own accord. Four escort vehicles, two in the front and two in the rear were manned by his team and Bureau of Diplomatic Security personnel, the entire procession accompanied by half a dozen Vietnamese military vehicles with police motorcycles leading, blocking off intersections as they made the rush back to the hotel.
“Are you okay, Madam Secretary?”
Atwater nodded, visibly shaken. “Do we know what happened?”
Dawson shook his head, activating his comm. “Bravo One-One, Bravo One. Sit rep, over?”
Sergeant Carl “Niner” Sung’s voice came in clear. “Bravo One, we’re secure at Echo Two but there might be a problem, over.”
“My security pass was stolen from my room. I’ve reported it and a new one is being issued. We’re double-checking all IDs here, over.”
“Roger that, ETA seven minutes, out.” Dawson chewed on his cheek. A stolen ID. He knew Niner and there was no way he had lost it or screwed up. Protocol would be to secure the ID in the room safe, but hotel room safes were notoriously unsecure.
The question now was whether or not it was a targeted theft, or simply unintentional, the thief grabbing everything he found. He had to assume targeted. He turned to Atwater. “Once you’re secure I’ll find out what happened, but I’m reasonably certain you weren’t the target.”
“I’m not waiting seven minutes, I want to know what happened now.” She snapped her fingers at her aide. “Call the Embassy, tell them what happened and tell them I want to know the status of the Russian Prime Minister ASAP!”
Ronald Greer pulled out his cellphone and quickly began dialing. Dawson frowned. “Madam Secretary, that phone isn’t secure, the conversation could be monitored. I highly recommend we wait until we have access to our secure comms.”
Atwater dismissed his concerns with a bat of the hand. “Nonsense. We have nothing to hide.”
Dawson turned his head toward the window so as not to betray how moronic he felt the Secretary’s statement was. He had lost count of the number of times they had found themselves in hot water because some politician who thought they knew better ignored the advice of him or one of his team.
And this day, he had a feeling, wasn’t going to end well.
He had heard four shots before they had exited the building, all from the same type of weapon, his quick glimpse and the sound of the shots suggesting a Makarov PM, probably a leftover from the war. The man appeared Vietnamese and it was pretty clear he was specifically after the Russian Prime Minister.
This is probably going to be the biggest international incident since the assassination of Franz Ferdinand triggered World War I.
Another intersection was cleared, their speed at best thirty, Hanoi’s streets not accustomed to unexpected emergency motorcades. His mental counter ticked down another intersection, six to go. When they arrived and the Secretary was secure in her room, he would be recommending an immediate return to Washington, the Russian response to the assassination of their Prime Minister unpredictable.
But he already knew the answer would be ‘no’.
Greer was speaking in hushed tones and Dawson was half-listening, updates coming through his comm from the security detail, he more concerned with securing his package.
Five to go.
“The Prime Minister is dead,” said Greer, fear and shock in his voice. “Along with his entire security detail.”
Dawson resisted the urge to raise his eyebrows. The entire detail? They were clearly caught off guard, the four shots he had heard rapid, the four shots fired within less than three seconds, and with there being no return fire, they were obviously all accurate.
“Has there been a response from the Russians yet?” asked Atwater.
“Not yet. We’re not even sure if they know.”
“Christ, there’s going to be hell to pay, and we were there when it happened!” She jabbed a finger at Dawson. “Why didn’t you do anything?”
The muscle memory in Dawson’s right hand mimicked tearing her throat out, the accusation idiotic. “I did, ma’am. I immediately evacuated my charge and am in the process of securing them.”
A puff of air escaped Atwater’s lips as if she thought it a pathetic answer.
“The Russians are going to blame us for this. We have an enhanced security detail—what are you, Delta? SEAL?—and you let him get killed!”
Thanks for blowing my cover, asshole.
He kept quiet.
“What?” Greer’s exclamation was one of pure shock as he turned to Atwater. “They’re saying he was killed by an American!”
Atwater’s jaw dropped and Dawson felt his chest tighten.
This is going to turn into a Charlie-Foxtrot in a hurry.
Outside Kusinara, Malla Kingdom Near modern day Indian/Nepalese border 401 BC
Asita skidded to a halt as he heard his father scream. He turned, gripping his sword but heard the dull thud of the deathblow echo through the alleyway he had left only moments before, then the cheers of the crowd.
He bent over and vomited.
Spitting the harsh liquid from his mouth he said a quick prayer and turned, rushing into the forest to the east of the village, weaving left and right through the dense foliage, the roar of the crowd still behind him as they discovered only one of the two they were after had fallen.
Heading directly for the camp they had made several days earlier upon arrival, tucked on the other side of this small thick of trees, he began to shout to the servants who had accompanied them, hoping they heard him.
“Pack immediately!” he cried. “We must leave now!”
He burst through the trees and into their small camp, a large tent shared by he and his father, several smaller ones for their entourage of four and supplies. The servants stood dumbstruck at his shouts, their faces questioning what there was no time to question.
“They’re coming. They mean to kill us all!”
He dove into his tent, surveying the room and quickly decided nothing was worth saving. He grabbed a small satchel and slung it over his shoulder, placing the now precious clay bowl into it then reemerged to see the supplies inside the tents quickly being tossed from within.
“Never mind that!” he yelled. “Arm yourselves and leave the rest. We’ll find food and water on the way.”
The snapping of branches and shouts from within the trees grew as the crowd surged forward in an effort to find the one who had escaped. A branch snapped nearby and a man burst from the forest, his sword wielding arm held high.
“I found them!” he shouted at Asita rushed forward, drawing his sword, swinging at the surprised man emboldened from the crowd, but now alone and apparently inexperienced in the art of war.
His innards spilled on the ground, a river of crimson flowing on the slight downslope leading to a meandering stream their camp was straddling.
More shouts and Asita knew it wouldn’t be long before they were overwhelmed.
“Run!” he shouted, turning from the forest and sprinting along the streambed, his feet splashing through the shallow water, the footfalls of his servants, including his trusted companion Channa close behind.
The forest belched forth dozens of pursuers at once.
Asita slowed to defend himself allowing the others to catch up and position themselves between him and the approaching throng.
“Run, Master! We will protect you!”
He hesitated for a moment as the four men, all highly adept warriors advanced on the crowd, leaving him shivering in the cool mountain runoff.
“Run!” cried Channa with a final look over his shoulder as swords clashed.
The battle soon began to fade, the clashing of swords crushing his spirit with each splash in the water, his thoughts of Channa, a servant he had grown up with and he had chosen to be his official companion upon becoming a man and heir to the leadership of their tribe.
Channa had been elated.
And Asita had been careful to never abuse his friend, instead rarely needing to ask for anything, Channa knowing him so well his needs were usually anticipated.
And now his friend would die defending his master.
A stabbing pain in his right shoulder overwhelmed him, sending him tumbling to the ground. His grip on his sword loosened and it clattered onto the bed of small rocks as he reached for the source of the pain, his head turning to look at what was causing so much agony.
An arrow, embedded deep, blood flowing freely, stood menacingly upright. He tried to reach it, but couldn’t, his fingertips irritatingly close but not enough to grip the shaft and pull it free. He pushed himself to his knees and another arrow skidded past him. He looked back and saw the archer marching toward him as he readied another arrow.
Or rather stumbled forward.
Vietnam National Museum of History, Hanoi, Vietnam Present Day
The curator sped away before Professor James Acton could say anything, leaving nothing but Vietnamese guards behind. And they still looked edgy.
“Was that who I—”
Acton cut Laura’s whispered question off. “Yes.”
“I know.” He turned to Mai. “Do you know what hotel Secretary Atwater is staying at?”
Mai nodded, still clearly terrified. “The same hotel you are staying at. It is the best Hanoi has to offer.”
“Excellent. I think it’s best we return to our hotel immediately.”
Mai asked something of one of the soldiers who appeared in charge and he replied with something sounding like an uncertain affirmative then adding a burst of dialogue just before they exited the room. They froze. The man approached, his walk cocky as he clasped his hands behind his back, his body almost at an obtuse angle as he approached, kicking his feet out in a slightly exaggerated manner.
Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?
“You are American?” asked the man, his accent thick.
“I am. My wife is a British subject.”
“You witnessed what happened here today?”
Acton nodded. “Yes.”
“You saw the man who did this?”
“Yes,” said Acton.
“Yes, we all did,” added Laura.
“No, I saw nothing!” yelped Mai, clearly terrified. “I closed my eyes as soon as the shooting started.”
Acton knew full-well that Mai had seen the shooter, but decided she must have her reasons for lying.
Probably pure terror. She knows if she doesn’t say what they want to hear, she’s liable to end up in some labor camp.
It made him yearn for a quick return home.
“I can attest to that,” said Acton, deciding to cover for Mai. “As soon as I saw the man appear from behind that tapestry”—he pointed to the far wall, their interrogator turning to look for a moment—“I grabbed them and pushed them to the floor. I’m surprised either of them saw anything.”
“I only did because I turned to look,” added Laura, playing along. “Miss Trinh was closest to this wall”—she motioned toward the near wall—“so she had both myself and my husband in her way.”
The man pursed his lips, not looking convinced. He shouted something and one of his men disappeared after a heel-clicking snap to attention. The man looked back at Acton then Laura, his eyes finally resting on a trembling Mai. “Why do I think you are lying?”
Acton shrugged. “Why would we lie? There was a shooting. We were simply trying to survive without getting shot.”
“Why didn’t you run like the others?”
“We were in the direct line of fire. If he had missed one of the guards he might have hit us. I felt it was more important for everyone to get on the ground.”
“Or perhaps the assassin knew you, and let you live.”
Mai failed to stifle a yelp.
Acton sensed his wife getting pissed off.
“What a ridiculous notion!” she cried, jabbing her finger at the five corpses. “A tragedy has occurred here today, a tragedy that we had nothing to do with. Clearly your security failed, which is unbelievable considering who your guests were today!”
Acton shifted slightly in front of Laura under the guise of getting a better look at the bodies on the other side of the room. He wagged a finger at her behind his back.
“Sir, we would be happy to cooperate in any way we can, but we didn’t really see much.”
“You saw the shooter.”
“Yes, I did,” said Acton. “Miss Trinh had no opportunity, and my wife had minimal.”
“And you would recognize the man should you see him again?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Why, because all us Charlie’s look alike?”
Acton hated to admit it, however it had been proven scientifically that people were programmed to be able to recognize people of their own ethnicity far easier than those of another, and his exposure to Vietnamese had been limited, Maryland not exactly bursting at the seams with the descendants of former refugees. “No,” he said deliberately, “it’s not that at all. It’s just that we were worried about getting shot the entire time. I was more focused on the barrel of his gun.”
The soldier dispatched earlier returned at a run, handing a folder over to his commander. The man opened the file, revealing the same photo they had seen earlier of Niner, a member of Delta Force’s Bravo Team. A man Acton knew and trusted with his life.
And definitely not the shooter.
“Do you recognize him?”
Acton was about to answer truthfully when he remembered Dawson’s subtle headshake.
He almost sensed Laura’s heart race.
“But you must.”
Acton felt a lump form in his throat.
“Why must I?”
“Because he is the shooter.”
Acton shook his head. “No, he isn’t.”
“How can you be sure? You said you were looking at the barrel of the gun? How can you be so sure it wasn’t him?”
Acton tried to steady his pounding heart. “I just know,” he said, digging his finger nails into his palms clasped behind his back. “This man looks completely different.” He decided to play a card, leaning forward and squinting. “He looks Korean to me.”
“So? So the man who shot the Prime Minister said he was Vietnamese.”
“You heard them speak? Why didn’t you say so before?” The man’s tone was becoming more pressing, more belligerent by the moment, and Acton wasn’t sure how to diffuse him.
“Because you simply didn’t ask, officer,” said Laura for the save, her voice sultry and sweet. “My husband said we’d cooperate fully. We simply haven’t had an opportunity to tell you what happened yet, since you’ve been focusing on who did the shooting, not how it happened. We would be happy to give you a statement.”
The man visibly relaxed, if only for a moment.
“What was said?” he snapped, his tone back.
Acton thought back, trying to recall exactly what was said. “He asked the Prime Minister if he recognized him, and when he said he didn’t, he said they had met in nineteen-seventy-four when the Prime Minister had led a group of”—he paused, searching for a word other than ‘Viet Cong’—“soldiers that massacred his village. The Prime Minister said his name as if he recognized him, said the war was over, then was shot by the man.”
“There were no Russian soldiers here during the civil war.”
Acton shrugged, knowing that if he called bullshit on the statement it might just get him killed. “All I can tell you is what I heard.”
“I think you’re lying.”
Acton’s chest tightened. “Why?”
The man held up the photo again. “Because this man is the shooter, and he’s an American spy!”
Again he shrugged, trying to remain calm. “That man”—he nodded toward the picture—“might very well be. But he isn’t the shooter.”
The man turned his head, shouting something, and immediately the entire security detail descended upon the three innocent bystanders.
Outside Pataliputra, Vrijji Kingdom Near modern day Indian/Bangladeshi border 401 BC, three months after the Buddha’s death
Asita rotated his arm gingerly and Channa smiled.
“See, I told you, good as new!”
Asita frowned, not certain he would describe his healed shoulder that way, but he had to admit, other than some general weakness which he hoped would go away in time, it felt remarkably well. Thanks to Channa’s tender ministrations, the bleeding had been stopped once they had escaped the bloodthirsty mob, and he had kept it clean and free of infection, treating it with various plants and herbs as he had been taught by the village elders. Part of his job as companion was to treat his master’s wounds during and after battle, which meant an extensive knowledge of medicine.
It had saved Asita’s life.
He had feared that should he survive, his arm surely wouldn’t, but Channa had refused to give up and his confidence infused Asita with his own, allowing him to fight back from the brink.
But it had been hard. Once the bleeding had been stopped they had been back on the horse almost immediately, trying to put as much distance between themselves and their pursuers. It had been a long, arduous season, the chill in the air blowing down from the mighty mountains now noticeable, and with all their supplies left behind at their camp, they had been forced to scavenge.
All they had had were the clothes on their backs and the clay bowl his father had died for.
Asita shrugged his robe back over his shoulder and eyed the bowl sitting on a nearby tree stump. Whenever they were camped he placed it in plain view—if they were alone—and contemplated the meaning. Both he and Channa were at a loss.
Trust in what you see.
“I see a bowl! A cursed bowl! A bowl that my father died for!”
Channa nodded knowingly, sitting beside his master and staring at the riddle. “How do you figure your father died for it?”
Asita’s head spun toward his friend, his jaw dropping. “Isn’t it obvious?”
A flash of anger raged through him. “If we hadn’t have waited for the bowl, we would have left the village long before the Buddha died. My father would be alive and we would be free of those pursuing us.”
Channa’s head bobbed as he poked the small fire with a stick, the flames jumping, burning embers floating in the air in front of them. “You assume too much, Master.”
Asita sucked in a deep breath, holding back his desire to cuff his friend as he had every right to do, but had never done. “Explain.”
“You assume they wouldn’t have been able to find out who your father was, and then followed us all back to the village. We—” He stopped, his jaw dropping just as Asita’s did.
“The village,” whispered Asita, his heart climbing into his throat. “We’ve been gone so long—”
“If they knew, they surely would have reached it by now!” finished Channa.
“We have to go. Now.” Asita began to push himself to his feet when Channa grabbed his arm.
“No, Master, we must wait until morning. It is too dangerous to travel at night. We will rest and leave at the crack of dawn, making all haste home.”