Wages of Sin - J. Robert Kennedy - ebook

"A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"USA TODAY and BARNES & NOBLE #1 BESTSELLING AUTHOR • “A MASTER STORYTELLER” • OVER 800,000 BOOKS SOLD • OVER 3,000 FIVE STAR REVIEWSWHEN IS THE PRICE TO PROTECT A NATION’S LEGACY TOO HIGH?Archaeology Professors James Acton and Laura Palmer are on safari in South Africa, enjoying a vacation away from the bullets and bombs that too often threaten their lives, when a chance encounter leads to a clue that could unlock the greatest mystery remaining of the Boer War over a century ago.The location to over half a billion dollars in gold.It’s a treasure that has claimed dozens of lives, and is about to claim even more.Four-time USA Today Bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy delivers another torn from the headlines thriller with Wages of Sin. Filled with intrigue, suspense, humor and a touch of romance, prepare to lose sleep with this action-packed adventure the likes of which only Kennedy can deliver. With over 800,000 books sold and over 3000 Five-Star reviews, it’s time to join those who have compared him to Patterson, Clancy, Brown, Cussler and Rollins.About the James Acton Thrillers:"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."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."James Acton: A little bit of Jack Bauer and Indiana Jones!"The James Acton Thrillers series and its spin-offs, the Special Agent Dylan Kane Thrillers and the Delta Force Unleashed Thrillers, have over 3000 Five-Star reviews and have sold over 800,000 copies. If you love non-stop action and intrigue with a healthy dose of humor, try James Acton today!Available James Acton Thrillers: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

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Wages of Sin

A James Acton Thriller


J. Robert Kennedy

From the Back Cover

“One of the best writers today.” (Johnny Olsen)

“A master storyteller.” (Betty Richard)


Archaeology Professors James Acton and Laura Palmer are on safari in South Africa, enjoying a vacation away from the bullets and bombs that too often threaten their lives, when a chance encounter leads to a clue that could unlock the greatest mystery remaining of the Boer War over a century ago.

The location to over half a billion dollars in gold.

It’s a treasure that has claimed dozens of lives, and is about to claim even more.

Four-time USA Today Bestselling author J. Robert Kennedy delivers another torn from the headlines thriller with Wages of Sin. Filled with intrigue, suspense, humor and a touch of romance, prepare to lose sleep with this action-packed adventure the likes of which only Kennedy can deliver. With over 500,000 books in circulation and over 3000 Five-Star reviews, it’s time to join those who have compared him to Patterson, Clancy, Brown, Cussler and Rollins.

About the James Acton Thrillers

"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.

About J. Robert Kennedy

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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Books by J. Robert Kennedy

The James Acton Thrillers

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

The Special Agent Dylan Kane Thrillers

Rogue Operator Containment Failure Cold Warriors Death to America Black Widow The Agenda Retribution

The Delta Force Unleashed Thrillers


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For Paris, for Brussels, for Nice and Munich.

“For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

Romans 6:23 King James Version

“A friend loveth at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.”


According to National Geographic, the Kruger National Park in South Africa is one of the world’s greatest nature preserves.

And one of its deadliest.

In the past two years, at least 19 elephants have been killed by poachers for their ivory tusks, and since 2008, over 4600 rhinos for their horns, over 800 this year alone. It is estimated that only 25,000 remain in the wild.

And it is easy to see why poachers are so tempted. At current market prices, ivory is going for almost $700 per pound—and what is stunning about that price is that it is a legal sale, from stockpiles in China.

One can only imagine the black market price.

All to feed the demand by traditional Chinese medicine, and a growing belief in that region that ground Rhinoceros horn powder is an aphrodisiac.

 What is perhaps most disturbing is that those sworn to protect these magnificent creatures are sometimes their worst enemies, park rangers falling prey to the allure of easy money, joining the poachers in their vile trade, as witnessed recently with the arrest of two rangers sworn to protect the animals of Kruger National Park.

But what if elephant tusks and rhino horns weren’t the only sources of temptation in the park?

What if there was something far more valuable?

How much blood might be spilled for a wealth so vast, it could change a nation’s future?

And the knowledge of its past.


En route to Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge Outside Belfast, South Africa Present Day

“How much farther?”

“Too far! Another forty minutes at least!”

Archaeology Professor James Acton stared out the back of the customized—and very open—Toyota Land Cruiser Safari Vehicle, and cursed at the sight. Three vehicles, their headlights slicing through the dusk, pursued them, gunfire ringing over their heads as their guide desperately tried to lead them to safety along the dirt road, their vehicle fishtailing far too frequently from the effort.

“Maybe we should just surrender?”

Acton glanced at his wife, Laura Palmer, also a professor of archaeology, crouching down on the floor. Mental images of what might happen to her and the other women flashed before his eyes, and it was horrifying.  He shook his head. “We can’t risk it, and besides”—he stared back at the vehicles, the distance closing rapidly—“I don’t think they’re shooting at us.”

She rose slightly to see for herself. “What makes you think that?”

“We haven’t been hit.”

He pulled the rifle from between the seats and checked if it was loaded, the weapon normally reserved for their safari guide, Sipho Tsabalala, to warn off any too curious beasts. It was. He took aim at the lead vehicle, siting the engine block rather than the occupants, and fired. A headlight blew out and the hood flipped up, the vehicle skidding off to the side.

“Good shot!” shouted Sipho from the front seat.

 “Lucky shot. Ammo?” Acton frowned as he saw the hood slammed shut in the distance, the vehicle rejoining the chase as ammo was handed forward.

“What the hell do they want?” asked one of the ungrateful brats they had rescued from the side of the road minutes before.

Acton fired again, missing, choosing to ignore the question, their pursuers obviously after one thing—the half-billion in lost gold they might have discovered the location to barely an hour before.

Laura grabbed him by the leg and shook. “I’ve got Hugh!” She turned away, trying to cover the phone from the noise of the open-air vehicle. He could only catch a word here and there as she relayed their situation to their good friend, Interpol Agent Hugh Reading, their Hail Mary on the satphone.

“Please help us!” shouted one of the young women they had picked up, screaming at the phone. Laura pushed her away as Acton fired, another miss, the vehicle bouncing far too much for him to get off a good shot. They were almost on top of them now, and Acton had a choice to make. Try killing the poachers, and risk their retribution when they were inevitably caught, or continue to try and take out the vehicles.

He decided on the latter.

“Look out!”

The vehicle jerked to the left, throwing Acton clear. He hit the ground hard, spinning with the impact as he tumbled into the tall grass lining the road. The vehicles pursuing them sped past as he came to a stop, the night air filled with the sickening sounds of a vehicle crashing, the screams of his wife, of his friends, mixed in with the nauseating cacophony of a vehicle flipping on its side.

An elephant trumpeted in protest as Acton pushed himself to his knees to see what was happening, the massive beast nonchalantly crossing the road with several others, marking the end of their vehicle’s flight to safety.


The pursuing vehicles skidded to a halt behind the wreck, their passengers piling out, weapons drawn. Acton leaped to his feet to go on the attack then dropped back down, thinking better of it. He was one against what appeared to be a dozen.


He crawled deeper into the grass, away from the road, with the realization he was the only hope his beloved wife and the others had.

But only if he stayed alive.


Outside Belfast, South African Republic May 3rd, 1900

Veldkornet Dirk Voorneveld’s chest was tight with fear, a fear he had felt before, and one he hoped to feel again. Yet it was a fear he would never admit to, nor show, the troops under his command needing a strong leader, unafraid of the enemy. On the horizon were dozens of British troops on horseback, and they were but twenty, the hope being a small contingent of commandos would draw less attention to their mission.

Though the damned British were having none of it.

After all, they were a small group of Boers and easy pickings.

His Commanding Officer, Kommandant Karl van der Merwe, galloped toward him, coming to a halt at his side, turning his trusted steed to face the enemy. “Veldkornet, take the wagons north. We’ll delay them as long as we can. Hide the cargo then return to Pretoria.”

“But you’ll never survive!”

Van der Merwe stared at him. “But you will.”

Voorneveld snapped out a salute, his chest aching with the realization of what was about to happen. His friend and commander returned the salute then readied his Mauser rifle.


Voorneveld watched helplessly as a dozen of the finest soldiers he had ever had the honor to serve with, charged toward certain defeat, unable to help. He turned to the few that remained. “You heard the Kommandant, let’s go!” He flicked the reins and his horse surged forward, turning down the road to the north, the wagon caravan containing the lifeblood of their country fleeing the scene of a battle that would be forgotten in history.

As a dozen brave souls sacrificed themselves.

All to save their nation’s gold reserve from the enemy.


Sabi Sabi Game Preserve Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa Present day, one day before the attack

“Didn’t I tell you this would be great?”

“You did.” James Acton smiled at his old friend, Gorman Ncube, a history professor at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, South Africa. He and Laura had been wondering what to do during their summer break besides spending all of it with their students on their dig sites, and decided two weeks away from everything was in order. When Gorman had suggested joining him and his wife for a safari, they had jumped at the opportunity, this being one of the items on Acton’s bucket list he had never had time to cross off, ironic since he had been hunted by all manner of man and woman over the past few years, yet beasts had pretty much left him alone.

He watched through the binoculars, their guide, Sipho, having wisely brought them to a halt far enough away to not scare the dozens of animals taking advantage of the cool water the lake had to offer. He sighed, completely at peace for the first time in too long.

“Look!” hissed Gorman’s wife, Angeline. “Do you see it?”

Acton turned to where she was pointing, Laura rising beside him, both now standing in the rear seat, their heads through the top of the essentially open-air vehicle.

“What are we looking for?” asked Laura, scanning the area.

“See the big tree over there?” They both nodded. “Well, just to the right, in the grass. There’s a lioness.”

“Oh no!” cried Laura as she spotted it. “She’s going to kill one of those poor animals!”

Angeline agreed. “Yes.”

“That’s terrible!”

Acton patted her leg. “That’s the law of the jungle, hon.”

“I know, I know,” sighed Laura. “That doesn’t mean I want to see it, though.”

Gorman glanced over at Acton. “Your wife, she’s not one of those vegetarians, is she?”

“Vegetarian?” chuckled Acton. “If she is, she’s doing it wrong.”

“Bloody hell, no!” Laura gave Gorman a quick glance before returning her attention to the hunt. “I love meat as much as the next girl, doesn’t mean I want to see my cow torn apart before James slaps it on the grill.”

As if sensing she had an audience demanding a show, the lioness pounced, burying its claws into the back of a larger zebra, its teeth sinking into the neck of the struggling beast, its efforts of no use—the most efficient hunter in the world had already won, it now just a matter of time for the magnificent creature it had chosen for its meal, to tire, collapse, then bleed out.

She was patient, the lioness, willing to wait for the inevitable, willing to wait for her prize.

But not everyone was willing.

“Ugh,” groaned Laura, turning away and covering her ears, the screams of agony and fear from the poor zebra overwhelming, even at this distance. Acton patted her back gently with one hand, the other eagerly holding the binoculars to his eyes as he watched the vicious efficiency of nature at play. Finally, the creature fell to its knees then onto its side, the lioness tearing out its throat, silencing its screams.

Sipho started the vehicle. “Do you want to get closer?”


Acton grinned at his wife. “I guess not.” His stomach growled and he patted it. “I’m starving, let’s eat.”

Laura stared at him in horror. “You can eat after that?”

“Umm, how long have you known me? In another hour I’ll be wrestling that lioness for a share of her kill if I’m not fed.”

Sipho turned in his seat. “I know a place near here, really good. My cousin makes homemade paap ’n vleis. Very good.”

Acton looked at his resident expert, Gorman. “What do you think?”

He smiled. “Have you ever had paap ’n vleis?”

Acton shook his head.

“Then you’re in for a treat! You never know what you’re getting!”

Acton’s eyes narrowed as Sipho turned them around, heading back toward the road in the distance. “What do you mean?’

“The meat.” Gorman winked slightly. “It depends on what roadkill the cook finds in the morning.”

Laura’s eyes widened as she turned green. “Umm…”

Everyone roared with laughter at the poor woman’s expense. Acton wrapped an arm around her shoulders, squeezing her tight. “He’s joshin’ ya, hon.”

Laura leaned between the seats so Sipho could see her. “He is joking, isn’t he?”

The driver shrugged. “I learned long ago not to ask what I’m eating.” He gave a toothy grin in the rearview mirror as he turned onto the road. Acton was suddenly not as hungry.


Maggie Harris Residence Lake in the Pines Apartments, Fayetteville, North Carolina

Maggie Harris hummed the theme song from Titanic as she washed last night’s dishes, a smile on her face, a bounce in her step as she thought of the perfect evening she had enjoyed with her man. He had finally given in and watched the ultimate chick flick—as he had called it—and begrudgingly admitted he did enjoy it, outright laughing when one of the passengers fell down the length of the ship, bouncing off an engine propeller or something. One aghast look with tear-filled eyes had silenced him, and even he seemed subdued with the ending when Jack slipped below the water one last time.

The lovemaking had been slow and sweet last night, just how she liked it. Sometimes she enjoyed the rough and tumble, especially after he came back from deployment and they hadn’t seen each other in days or weeks, though sometimes it was nice to just hold each other, stare into the eyes of the person you had chosen to spend the rest of your life with, and enjoy the sensations of two bodies melded as one.

She placed the now clean plate in the dishrack, moving onto a wine glass, hers stained with lipstick, his as if it hadn’t been used. A spasm racked her entire body, every muscle tensing for a moment as pain seared through her extremities. The glass fell to the tile floor, shattering, and she gasped out a cry, the pain subsiding quickly.

Barely moments later, Command Sergeant Major Burt “Big Dog” Dawson, the man who had completely satisfied her last night both emotionally and physically, appeared in the kitchen doorway, somehow having made it from the bedroom in what seemed a single bound.

“What’s wrong?”

“Wait!” She held out a hand, blocking him from entering. “There’s glass everywhere. Get me the broom and dustpan from the hall closet.”

Dawson disappeared for a moment, returning with the requested items. He quickly swept a path toward her then took her hand in his. She only now noticed she had been rubbing it, the pain still there. “What happened?”

She shook her head. “Just dropped a glass. Nothing to worry about.”

Yet it was a lie. Something had happened, something that wasn’t normal, and it wasn’t the first thing she had dropped in the past few days, nor was it the first time she had felt the pain, though this was by far the worst.

And like before, her head throbbed with a splitting headache.

Something was wrong, and she had no doubt it was related to the wound she had received in Paris. She had been shot in the head, and there had been brain trauma, though she was fully recovered—or so she had thought. The doctors had said there could be complications, but she had just met with them a few weeks ago and they had said there were no signs of any problems.

Dawson put his hands on her shoulders. “You sure you’re okay?”

She didn’t trust herself to look in his eyes, instead laying her head on his chest. “Yes. Just clumsy.”

He placed a gentle kiss on the top of her head. “Well, it wasn’t the wake-up call I was expecting, but I’ve gotta get ready.”

“What’s on today’s agenda?”

He grinned. “Evaluating new recruits. I’ll be gone for a few days.”

Maggie peered at him sideways. “Why’s that got you so happy?”

His grin expanded. “I get to torture people. Legally.”

She chuckled, her pain forgotten. “I’m glad you’re on our side.”

She turned to sweep the rest of the floor when he wrapped his arms around her from behind.

“I’m on this side.” He spun her around, grabbing her ass and pulling her tight against him. “And this side.”

She felt his need. “Ooh, is that for me?”

“Who else?”

“Maybe I’ll sweep up this glass later. I wouldn’t want you going to work distracted.”

He lifted her off the floor and she wrapped her legs around his waist as he kissed her with an urgency that told her she was in for a bout of hard sex, not love making.

Her heart fluttered in anticipation as he put her on the counter. “Let’s take this to the bedroom.”

He smiled. “Is that an order?”


“Yes, sir!” He hoisted her over his shoulder, fireman style, and carried her out of the kitchen as she giggled with delight.

It’s going to be so good.


Outside Belfast, South Africa

Acton leaned back from the picnic table, moaning in pleasure as he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand, his napkin having blown away in the sometimes-gusting breeze. “My God, that was fantastic.” He looked at Sipho. “Do I want to know what it was?”

Sipho shrugged. “Probably not.”

Laura pushed away her metal plate, daintily sucking her fingers clean. “That was good. Impala, wasn’t it?”

Sipho’s eyes widened in surprise. “Yes, how did you know?”

“This isn’t my first time around the Cape.”

Acton shoulder-bumped her. “That’s my girl!” He turned to Sipho, who they had insisted join them for lunch, they never ones to treat the hired help as hired help. “So, where to now?”

“Back to the lodge. If we leave now, we’ll reach there before nightfall, and there’re some things to see along the way. You don’t want to miss their braai dinner. Tomorrow we’ll be out all day, so you’ll want to get plenty of rest tonight.”

Laura finished her finger cleaning ritual. “Sounds good.” She rose, triggering the others, and they all bussed the table to the pleased grin of their chef, a pleasant, slightly rotund man who had tried to feed his cousin’s friends for free, something Laura would have none of.

She tugged on his sleeve, pointing to a woman who had a table set up, various crafts on display. “Let’s take a look.”

They walked over, Laura leading the way. Gorman and his wife took a quick peek then returned to the Toyota, the two proud of their Zulu heritage, Laura shown items on prominent display in their home when arriving two days ago far finer than these local crafts. Laura smiled at the shy young woman manning the table. “These are beautiful.”

The woman smiled awkwardly, turning her head slightly and staring at the ground.

Laura held an elaborate scarf up to her neck, showing it to Acton. “What do you think?”

“Very colorful.”

“Does that mean it looks good on me?”

Acton went for the safe answer. “Babe, anything looks good on you.” His eyebrows bobbed up and down. “Or off you.”

 She elbowed him. “Save it for tonight.”

“Sorry, babe, you heard the man. We need to get our rest. No time to satisfy your primal needs.”

Laura folded the scarf back up, tossing him a glance. “Careful, I can be a camel.”

Acton’s eyes narrowed. “One hump or two?”

Another elbow. “You’re incorrigible. I meant—”

“Oh, I know what you meant. Don’t make threats you can’t keep.” He winked. “You know you can’t resist me.”

Laura gave him a look. “You’re mighty confident in your abilities.”

“Well, I was there last night, and I like to think I had something to do with what happened.”

She gave him a smile, patting him on the cheek. “I’m sure you had some small part to play.”

Acton groaned. “Oh, babe, don’t ever use the word ‘small’ when we’re talking about that.”

She smiled sweetly. “Oh, whatever do you mean?”

He frowned. “Uh-huh, so that’s the way it’s going to be, huh? Let’s just see how you’re feeling tonight when you’re all randied up and the candy store is closed.”

Laura’s eyes narrowed. “I thought I was the candy store.”

“No, that’s the treasure chest.”

“I thought these—”

Acton cut her off, raising his voice slightly as he stepped toward the table. He pointed at the scarf. “So, how much for this?”

“Eight rand.”

“We’ll take it.” He gestured toward Laura. “She’s going to need something to keep her warm tonight.” His eyes narrowed as he noticed a necklace around the woman’s neck, a silver dollar sized medallion partially visible under her shirt. He pointed at it. “That’s an interesting piece. Did you make it?”

She shook her head, pulling it out so he could see it. “No, my father make. You like? I give you good price!”

Acton felt sorry for her, the woman clearly poor and desperate for money, excited at the sale she had just made. Acton decided to bite. “Sure, how much?”

She removed it from her neck and held it out in her palm, small scars all over her hands and forearms, evidence of a hard, honest life. “Fifteen rand?” she asked, hopefully.

Acton smiled, knowing he was being gouged. He pulled out a bill, handing it over. “Keep the change.”

The woman beamed, passing him the necklace. Acton placed it around Laura’s neck.

She smiled, holding the medallion then looking up at him. “So now you resort to bribes?”

“Is it working?”

She hugged the scarf. “It could.”

Sipho walked over, nodding to the young woman. “Come, we must leave now if we’re to make it before nightfall.”

Laura turned toward the vendor and smiled. “Thank you so much.”

The young woman bowed. “No, thank you. Have a nice trip.”

Acton helped Laura into the Toyota, watching as two small children rushed up, hugging the young woman’s legs, as excited as she was at the bills she clutched in her hands.

There but for the grace of God, go I…


Swart Farm Outside Belfast, South African Republic May 3rd, 1900

“No one can know.”

Boet Swart nodded at Veldkornet Voorneveld, his balled fists pressed against his hips. “I’ll die before I tell anyone.”

And Voorneveld believed him. Swart was a loyal Boer, though not a soldier, instead the sole provider for his wife and three girls. But Voorneveld knew, if push came to shove, this man wouldn’t hesitate to die for his beliefs. “You’re a good man, Oom.”

Swart grunted, refusing the compliment. “I’m a good Christian.” He pointed at the hole now being filled in by Voorneveld’s men, the gold safely hidden from the rampaging British. “That is our gold, not theirs. I’ll guard it with my life, like any man here would.”

“I have no doubt you will, which is why you have been entrusted with this duty.”

“All done, Veldkornet,” reported a breathless korporaal.

“Very well. Clean yourselves up and prepare to depart.”

“Ja, Veldkornet!”

Swart looked at him and the others. “What will you do now?”

Voorneveld pursed his lips, staring back along the road they had arrived upon a few hours ago. “Join the fight, if there’s still a fight to join.” He sighed. “I fear the worst.” He turned to Swart as his men washed themselves off with pails of water provided by the young Swart women. “If they had been victorious, they would have come this way.”

Swart agreed. “Is there any point then? Why not go back to Pretoria?”

Voorneveld shook his head, this man, though brave, clearly never a soldier. “Because they are my comrades, and my friends. If there’s any chance they are alive, even just one of them, it is our duty to save them.” He swung into his saddle and Swart extended a hand. Voorneveld shook it, the man’s grip strong.

“I wish you luck.”

“Thank you, Oom.”

But I fear we’ll need more than that.


1st Special Forces Operational Detachment - Delta HQ Fort Bragg, North Carolina A.k.a. “The Unit” Present Day

Burt Dawson cracked the cap of the bottle of water handed him by his best friend and second-in-command, Master Sergeant Mike “Red” Belme, already taking a swig before the door to the interrogation room closed, silencing the sobs from the other side.

“What do you think?” asked Red, staring through the two-way mirror at the soldier on the other side of the glass, someone who had made the mistake of applying to be a member of the Unit, also known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment—Delta, or simply Delta Force to the civilian community. They were America’s elite, their existence classified though now well known, their identities closely guarded secrets.

Joining Delta was the dream of any soldier who wanted to see more intense action, who wanted to be trained harder, driven harder, than any other.

It was a privilege.

An honor.

And to prove you were worthy, you had to pass the psychological torture test, for being Delta didn’t just mean you were a marksman, an expert at hand-to-hand combat, or a wizard at hacking computer networks, it also meant you were mentally tough, excelling under conditions no average person could fathom.

In the thick of the jungle, or the desolation of the desert, if you were captured and tortured, would you betray your comrades and your country, or would you spit in your captor’s face and invite death?

Dawson twisted the cap back in place, regarding the man inside. “He’s pretty damned vocal, but he hasn’t cracked. If this were real, what with all the tears and begging, they might just believe he knows nothing.”

“Do you think it’s a tactic?”

Dawson smiled slightly. “Probably, and if it is, he’s damned good.”

“How much longer are you going to toy with him?”

Dawson shrugged. “Book says three more hours, but I had the clock reset, so he thinks he’s only got one more.”

Red chuckled. “You’re a bastard.”

Dawson grinned. “I know.”

“How long did you last?”

“Long enough, apparently.” Dawson eyed his friend. “You’re the bastard who did it to me, you tell me.”

Red laughed. “I know. You’re the first one that didn’t say a word the entire time.”

“I think I had a few choice ones for you when it was over.”

Red’s head bobbed. “Yeah, I can’t believe you kiss your mother with that mouth.”

“You’re one to talk. I watched your video. You’re lucky Jethro didn’t file charges against you.”

Red shrugged. “He shouldn’t have got that close. Besides, it was just a nose.”

“Yeah, but he never looked the same.”

Red laughed. “And the noise it made when he slept. It was like one of those Oscar Mayer Wiener Whistles. I remember the first op we were on together after, I offered to break it again, to see if I could fix it.” He sighed, his face turning from fond remembrance to gloom. “He was a good man.”

Dawson agreed. “The best. When this is over, let’s hoist a few in his honor.”

“You bet.”

Dawson finally keyed in on something, turning to his friend. “What the hell are you doing here, anyway? Aren’t you on medical leave?”

“You’ve got an op.”

Dawson’s eyebrows popped. “What, you can’t handle it?” he mocked.

Red grinned. “You’re on deck, I’ve got a sprained ankle, and besides, somebody happened to be finishing a debrief when he heard you were being called away and insisted on being your replacement.”

“Hey, old man!”

Dawson spun, grinning as two old comrades in arms entered the room. “Jesus, they let anyone in here now.”

Fist bumps were exchanged with Rook and Temple, two men he hadn’t worked with since the incident in Mecca involving a missing nuke, Rook having left to command his own team, Temple having developed a rare form of macular degeneration that had kept him from the field.

“So you’re my relief?”

Rook nodded. “Yup. When I heard what you were up to, I couldn’t resist. Not every day you get to psychologically torture new recruits.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder at Temple. “This sad sack was doing the debrief so asked if he could come.”

Dawson looked at Temple. “Payback?”

“Damn right. As a matter of fact, weren’t you the guy who waterboarded me?”

Dawson grinned. “I did it out of love.”

“You were enjoying it.”

“Yes, yes I was.” He gestured toward the door to the interrogation chamber. “Now it’s your turn.”

Temple stepped up to the glass, squinting. “Do you think he had any idea that SERE training was the easy part?”

Red chuckled. “I know I thought so.”

Temple frowned. “Knowing is one thing, experiencing it is a totally different thing.”

Dawson glanced at the broken man inside. “True. But if ISIS or the North Koreans get their hands on him, he’ll be in for a lot worse than what he’s getting here.”

“Yup.” Rook slapped his hands together then eagerly rubbed his palms vigorously back and forth. “Can I take over?”

Dawson presented the door with a grand gesture. “Be my guest.” Rook reached for the handle, Temple following. Dawson stuck his arm out, blocking him. “Dude, you can’t go in there.”

Temple stared at him in shock. “Why the hell not?”

“If you can’t see the guy, how the hell are you going to torture him?”

Something pressed against Dawson’s asshole. He glanced over his shoulder and spotted Temple’s hand gripping the hilt of an M9 bayonet, the tip ready for a violent prostate exam.

“Found your sweet spot no problem, didn’t I?”

Rook and Red roared with laughter, Dawson joining them though only once the knife blade was removed. “Okay, okay, you can play.”


Sabi Sabi Bush Lodge Greater Kruger National Park, South Africa

Acton’s thumb rubbed over the medallion around Laura’s neck, his arm draped over her shoulders as they both relaxed in a comfortable loveseat, enjoying the idyllic setting, the sun now set, the only illumination from strategically placed candles and fires. Local Zulu dancers were providing the entertainment, rhythmic drumming forcing some who couldn’t resist the urge, to jump to their feet and join in.

It was the perfect end to a perfect day.

The sights they had seen had been magnificent, witnessing the breathtaking scene of a lioness on the hunt the definite highlight for all of them, though the viciousness of it still disturbed Laura. Even Angeline had turned away, something he hadn’t noticed at the time, her husband later sharing this tidbit to make Laura feel better.

“I’ve seen it before,” was the explanation. “Once is enough.”

He suddenly took notice of the sensations transmitted to his relaxed subconscious, and his thumb froze. “Can I see the medallion?”

Laura leaned forward and removed it from around her neck, handing it to him. “Why?”

He ran his thumb over the front, the image of a lioness head not of interest, though it was what had attracted him to the medallion in the first place, the perfect representation of the woman he loved, and a nice little souvenir of their time here. He didn’t expect her to wear it when they returned home, the trinket merely a curiosity that would occupy a small space in their shared office already filled with items collected over decades of two distinguished careers. Pulling a candle closer to him, he flipped the medallion over, revealing the back.  His eyes widened slightly as the candlelight revealed what his thumb had suggested.

It was engraved.

But the light was too dim to make out what was written. He pulled his phone from his pocket and turned on the flashlight feature, apologizing to those around him as it was nearly blinding. He quickly turned it off, though not before he got enough of a look to send a rush of adrenaline through his system.

Could it be?


Anantachin Buddhist Monastery Cameron, North Carolina

Sergeant Carl “Niner” Sung gave one final bow then rose, his prayer for the dead finished. It had been his first chance to properly honor the woman who he had barely known, yet had such an impact on him—Yunhui Kim.  He still found himself dwelling on the fantasy of what could have been, rather than the reality of what was—a few hours together under harrowing circumstances, ending with the promise of a home-cooked meal and perhaps something more.

Though that hadn’t been the end.

The end had been a bullet to the head, a bullet that if she hadn’t been talking to him, if she had instead kept her head down like the others, would have missed her, leaving her alive today.

He sighed, closing his eyes once more, picturing her beautiful face, the image quickly replaced by the horror of the side of her head, matted in blood, unmoving, the smile that had won him over, gone.

It wasn’t his fault. He knew that. The bastard operating the drones was to blame, and he refused to ruin his life because of something that wasn’t his responsibility.

She was gone.

And there was nothing he could do about it beyond what he had already done—put a bullet in the asshole’s head.

He bowed slightly, clasping his hands in front of him as he closed his eyes one last time.