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Liberation Day - A Thorn Byrd Novel

 

 

 

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Praise for Liberation Day

 

Very believable and relevant story to the world we live in. Thorn Byrd gets thrown into a world that he had no previous knowledge of, he must make tough decisions to help uncover the truth. He’s recently out of the military and a talented young man, and he only hopes this will help fill the missing pieces in his life. There’s a great deal of suspense in this book between the cartel leaders, murders and military schemes. A really fascinating plot, and you can tell than Stevens knows his stuff when it comes to the government and military. – Amazon Top 1000 Reviewer

 

Would be a good idea for a series. I know I would be a follower. Jack Reacher reinvented. Good stuff. – Kindle Reviewer

 

I was kept on edge waiting for the pieces to come together. Good read, excellent story. – Amazon Reader

 

I am really enjoying reading this author. Every one of his books is just a bit different but he does a good job. – Kindle Reader

 

 

Praise for other works by Dustin Stevens

 

This was such a believable story that it was impossible to stop reading. This could have been taken right out of the headlines. It was a remarkable story about family love. A brother that would do anything to protect his niece and get her back home to safety!!! You will not regret buying this book!!! – Kindle Reader

 

I found the book extremely well written. It took a more serious approach. A vivid yet to-the-point style of writing. Not necessarily poetic, but artistic in its own sense. I’ve recommended it to a few of my friends who love these ‘family oriented crime thrillers’ style books. They’ve all really enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of suspense stories, but this one captured my interest and held it to the end. –Top 500 Amazon Reviewer

 

This story is incredibly faced paced. From the moment O receives a call for help form his sister Lex until the last page, everything happens at a thrilling pace. Dustin Stevens draws you in and doesn’t let you go. Just like “stopping” is not an option for O in his race against time, you won’t be able to stop reading. – M’s Bookshelf

 

Great thriller that is quite a page turner. It manages to keep you engaged from beginning to end. I couldn’t put it down and especially loved the hero’s devotion to his family. – Kindle Reader

 

 

Other works by Dustin Stevens:

 

The Debt

Going Viral

Quarterback

Scars and Stars

Catastrophic

21 Hours

Ohana

Twelve

Liberation Day

Just a Game

Ink

Four

 

The Zoo Crew Novels:

Moonblink

The Glue Guy

Tracer

Dead Peasants

The Zoo Crew

 

The Hawk Tate Novels:

Fire and Ice

Cover Fire

Cold Fire

 

The Reed & Billie Novels:

The Kid

The Good Son

The Boat Man

 

 

 

Liberation Day

 

A Thorn Byrd Novel

 

Dustin Stevens

 

 

Liberation Day

Copyright © 2013, Dustin Stevens

 

Warning: All rights reserved. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work, in whole or part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical, or other means, is illegal and forbidden, without the written permission of the author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Characters, settings, names, and occurrences are a product of the author’s imagination and bear no resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, places or settings, and/or occurrences. Any incidences of resemblance are purely coincidental.

 

 

 

The injury done to a man ought to be such that

vengeance cannot be feared.

—Niccolo Machiavelli

Prologue

Heidelberg, Germany 1943

 

 

The first time Anton Chekov saw her, he had no reason to think she was about to change his life forever.

On the surface, it was a completely unremarkable afternoon. The day was bright and clear, with the slightest hint of encroaching fall in the air as he and his family sprawled out in the park to eat lunch. A solid blue blanket was spread over a swath of green grass, ample room for all five to lounge in the warm sun.

After finishing his second sandwich, Anton leaned back onto his elbows and lifted his face to the sky, his stomach distended before him. At fifteen years old, he already favored his father’s appearance, his body thick throughout, with a uniformity of width that ran from his knees to his shoulders, a square chin, and a hooked nose. Both his hair and eyes were deep brown and a small gap showed between his teeth when he smiled.

Feeling the strain of his pose, Anton rolled onto his stomach and rested his chin atop his hands, inventorying the scene around him. To his right, his parents discussed plans for the afternoon while his younger siblings, Anya and Yuri, finished eating. On his left, a group of children laughed as they chased one another. A young couple strolled hand in hand. An elderly man shuffled by with his miniature Schnauzer in tow.

All the trappings of a picturesque day in the park.

The onset of fall was a welcome change for the town of Heidelberg. The summer had been unseasonably warm for the Bavarian town, seeing abnormally high temperature spikes during the day with little reprieve at night. For many the summer heat had been so oppressive it forced them to alter their schedules, limiting outdoor activities so as to avoid the midday sun as much as possible.

For Anton and his family, being away from the temperate climate of their native Russia for the first time, the summer had been a veritable Hell on earth.

Four months prior, Dmitri Chekov had been named a diplomat to Germany. It was a post none of them were excited about at the time, even less so with each passing day of Adolf Hitler’s meteoric rise to power. Ultimately though, for a man in Dmitri’s position, there was nothing that could be done.

One night the family sat down to eat dinner at their home in Kazan. The next morning, they were bound for Heidelberg.

No further discussion. No opposition of any kind.

The first few months of the trip had been lived entirely in fear, each day spent glancing over a shoulder, always waiting to be on the receiving end of the atrocities they’d heard so much about.

Over time, that fear ebbed to little more than an active awareness as one by one those rumors were dispelled. There were no monsters in the night waiting to devour them, no angry hordes storming the street, ready to purge anybody that might be a bit different from the Aryan model.

By and large, the German people treated them well. There was always plenty to eat. The weather, though hot, was nice. Nobody wanted for anything.

Months passed and active awareness eroded even further into apathy.

The first time Anton noticed her, he didn’t actually see her. Rather, he saw a flash of bright auburn hair as she streaked past the reflecting pond through the center of the park. Full and vibrant, it snapped his gaze up from the yellow leaves strewn haphazardly across the surface of the water, following the unknown figure sprinting through the park.

Slight of build and short in stature, she looked to be about the same age as him, dressed in a nondescript school uniform. A look of pure terror was splashed across her face as she repeatedly cast glances over her shoulder, paying very little attention to the path in front of her.

Halfway across the park she dropped the books she was carrying, the items slapping the pavement in a flurry of loose pages. No once did she slow or make any effort to retrieve them, instead keeping a steady pace across the grounds, disappearing from sight just as suddenly as she’d arrived.

Her entire appearance took little more than an instant.

Confused and intrigued, Anton watched as not a single other person seemed to notice her, nobody even glancing after the apparition that had come and gone. With great effort he rose slowly and dusted himself off, his hands slapping against the canvas front of his trousers.

“I’ll be back. I need to use the restroom.”

Still engrossed in their meal and the conversation it entailed, nobody in his family objected, oblivious to his determination to follow her.

“Don’t be too long,” his mother said without looking up at him, her voice distant. “We’re leaving soon.”

The admonition was no more than out of her mouth, the words barely registering, before Anton set off at a brisk walk. He left the books lying in the dirt, stepping between the scattered pages as he went, cutting a path toward the far corner of the park where she had disappeared. As nonchalantly as his adolescent curiosity would allow, he paused to make sure his family wasn’t watching him before slipping away. Once out of sight he raised his pace to a jog, sweat beginning to dot his forehead.

Two blocks passed beneath Anton’s feet as his breath became labored in his chest. A few cars were parked along the street, a pair of black sedans rolled by, but otherwise the throughway was almost deserted in the early afternoon sun, his panting the only sound.

For six blocks Anton continued on, stopping at every corner to cast a look in either direction, hoping for another flash of color to catch his eye, praying a stray noise would guide his search. Instead, all that found its way to his ears was the faint static of a radio through an open window, an occasional bird overhead, even a few dogs barking in the distance.

Nothing resembling the flight of a scared young girl.

Just shy of a dozen blocks, a full half mile from where he had started, Anton abandoned the search. His lungs burned as they fought for air and his shirt clung to his back, sweat seeping from his body, plastering the cotton material to his skin.

Desperate to leave the warmth of direct sunlight, he hooked a right onto a side street and began his loop back toward the park. Shoving his hands into his pockets he pressed forward, extending one foot in front of the other, his gaze on the buildings rising three stories tall to either side. Paying no attention to the uneven ground on which he walked, he never saw the raised chunk of concrete as it caught the toe of his shoe.

Never had a chance to pull his hands from his pockets as his body pitched forward.

The side of Anton’s face was the first thing to connect with the ground, the rough surface scraping a chunk of skin away from his cheek. After contact, it took a full moment for a wave of pain to roil through his body, his vision blurring, tears glassing his eyes. Bright lights popped in small explosions before him, followed by tiny dark pin pricks, his body laying flat on the ground, unable to move.

For several moments he remained just that way, grey cobwebs nudging into the corners of his vision. He lay flat and let the cool of the concrete seep through his pant legs before working his hands free, grunting as he pushed back onto his knees.

Staining the concrete beneath him was a wet smear of blood, the bright red a stark contrast to the pale gray stone.

Beside it lay the broken half of a tooth.

Feeling another jolt of nausea pass through him, Anton raised a hand to the side of his face and dabbed at the warmth running along his cheek. An involuntary wince crossed his features as more pain coursed through him, his fingers snapping back to reveal dark crimson stains on his fingertips.

Using the tip of his tongue he felt along the front bridge of his teeth, finding the gap where his shattered tooth once was, tasting the metallic tang of blood in his mouth.

“Are you all right?”

The voice seemed to come from nowhere, snapping Anton into a defensive stance, his attention jerked to the right.

There, huddled in the corner of the doorway, peering out at him with large round eyes, sat the very reason he wasn’t still on the blanket with his family. She was crouched low, her body pressed against the wooden frame of the door, hidden from view, with only her neck craned out toward him. “Are you all right?” she repeated.

“I think so,” he replied, his voice sounding a bit distorted as it passed through the broken tooth.

Without another word, the girl nodded before retreating back even tighter into her corner. The shadows of the doorway concealed her tiny frame, though were no match for the shock of bright red hair atop her head.

“Are you all right?” Anton asked, feeling the warmth of fresh blood as it dripped from his mouth, hitting his bottom lip and running down his chin.

“Yes, I am fine,” the girl snapped, finality in her tone.

“Are you sure? I saw you running through the park. You looked scared.”

Again she answered without looking at him. “I said I am fine. Now please, go.”

Anton sat back on his haunches and again touched his face. Fresh drops of blood decorated his hand, dripping down onto the ground below.

“All this happened to me because I was coming to check on you. The least you can do is talk to me.”

The girl continued to scan the street, not bothering to look his direction. “Please. I do appreciate you coming to check on me and I do feel badly about your fall, but you have no idea what’s going on here. Please, for both of us, just go.”

Anton started to reply, but thought better of it. He cast a sideways glance at her and shook his head before rising to his feet, taking a few steps back the other direction. “Can you at least tell me what you were running from? Haven’t I earned that much from you?”

The girl chewed at her bottom lip, her head shifting to eye him from her perch in the corner. “You are not from here, you would not understand.”

Anton attempted to respond, his voice drowned out by the harsh din of a siren. It started low and even, rising with each passing second into an angry wail that filled the street and reverberated off the buildings. As it grew closer Anton pressed his palms against his ears, his face contorted as the pain of his fall and the deafening crescendo erupted in his head.

Turning on the ball of his foot, he saw the source of the noise round into view, a flat-bed truck that pulled onto the end of the street and came to a stop. From the back of it descended a detachment of German soldiers, all in matching uniforms, all staring back at him as they filed out.

“No. No no no!” the girl yelped from behind him.

In a flash her small hand was inside the crook of his arm, her body leaning in the opposite direction, pulling him away.

“Wait, what are you doing?” Anton asked, his arm held parallel to the ground by the girl’s incessant tug.

“You don’t understand. They are who I was hiding from!”

Confusion clouded Anton’s features as he glanced from the girl to the soldiers behind them. “Who are they? What do they want?”

“The SS,” she yelled, her voice bordering on hysterical. “Hitler’s personal police!”

The words were at last what we needed to hear.

Despite a significant height advantage, it was all Anton could do to keep up with her as they sprinted down the deserted street. With each step it became a little harder to stay upright as a maddening dizziness filled his head, his body aching for oxygen.

“Why?” he gasped. “We didn’t do anything.”

The girl offered no response as behind them the SS broke into a run, little by little gaining ground. The lead guard pulled a whistle from his jacket and began to blow wildly, the shrill sound filling the air, mixing with the steady wail of the siren at the other end of the street.

“The park,” Anton said, his voice coming in ragged bursts, his body clawing for air. “My parents…safety…”

Hand in hand, the mismatched pair made the corner and veered to the right, the park, their salvation, just a few blocks ahead. Behind them the guards continued to gain ground, swinging wide around the corner, running hard in pursuit.

As the sound of their footsteps grew closer, Anton threw a frantic look over his shoulder to check their progress.

With his shoulders turned, he never saw the lone SS guard step from the doorway in front of him.

Anton’s opened his mouth to cry out, his head just beginning to swivel forward, as the guard’s nightstick caught him across the bridge of the nose. For the briefest moment he felt the sensation of his feet coming up from beneath him, his body suspended weightless above the ground.

The girl, her hand still clasped in his, did the same as her tiny body rose in flight beside him, his momentum whipping her about. Together they landed in a heap, Anton existing just on the edge of consciousness, barely registering the girl’s weight splashed across him, his own body refusing to move.

A fearful cry rolled out from her as she tried to wrest herself free, her limbs clawing for purchase against his soft form.

“Aw, now isn’t this cute?” the guard asked, mocking in his tone, the club in his right hand, tapping against his left palm.

Just inches from his face, Anton could see tears form in the girl’s eyes. “Please,” she whispered, “we’ve done nothing to you.”

“Since when does that matter?” the guard replied before raising his nightstick and in a move practiced a hundred times before, bringing it down across the back of her head. A thin trail of blood streamed from her skull, running along her hairline and dripping onto the front of Anton’s shirt as the haze started to take control.

A moment later he too descended into darkness, the combined effects of the preceding ten minutes finally too much for his young body to handle.

Chapter One

Boston, Present Day

 

 

A plume of white mushroomed around Tommy O’Malley’s head as he stood in place, bouncing on the balls of his feet in the cold night air. Part of it was cigarette smoke from the filtered Marlboro he clutched between his fingers, the remainder his warm breath meeting the cold Boston night.

“Christ Almighty,” he muttered, pulling his pea coat collar higher around his neck. On his hands he wore knit gloves with the fingers cut out. A thick ski cap covered his head.

Combined, they did little to shield his body from the icy air enveloping him.

“I thought you bastards said it was supposed to be eighty degrees in two days!” he yelled at the radio perched inside the guardhouse. In a huff, he snapped his cigarette out into the darkness and returned inside, closing the door behind him. He pulled his gloves off and blew warm air through his fingers, his head bobbing along as U2 came on over the ancient receiver.

Tommy had started working nights at the Dorchester docks just over two years before to help get through college. One semester at UMass was enough to tell him he wasn’t going to be a Congressman, so he traded in the books and went to the docks full time. His class schedule had dictated he work the night shift and over time, he grew to like it. After the classes fell by the wayside, he didn’t see a reason to change.

Most nights he sat in the guard booth and listened to the radio, talked on the phone, occasionally flipped through a girlie magazine. Every once in a great while he’d bring in a flask of something or nod off for a bit, though those nights were rare and hadn’t occurred in quite some time.

The men he worked for were fair to him and he tried to do the same by them.

The digital clock on the wall said it was a quarter past two when a shiny black sedan turned in off the street and made its way toward the guard post. The crunch of the tires biting into asphalt and the low purr of the engine cut through the still night air, alerting O’Malley long before it arrived. Out of habit, he flipped the radio off on the desk and waited as the low beams moved toward him.

O’Malley checked the appointment schedule on his clipboard and found it clear, just as it had been several hours before when he arrived. The implied rule on the docks was that anybody wanting to access their cargo after hours needed a reservation, though the maxim was never explicitly stated. Many of the people that used the docks weren’t the type to be bothered with strictures and if firm enforcement was implemented, they’d take their business elsewhere.

O’Malley had been through it enough times to know that if someone showed up at two o’clock in the morning wanting access, he gave it to them and reported it up the line. If a suggestion for compliance needed to be made, it would be from someone a lot higher in the pecking order than him.

“Here we go again,” O’Malley muttered as he pulled his hands through the fingerless gloves and went out into the night. The temperature had dropped another few degrees and it grabbed at his throat, sucking the air from his lungs.

Stepping away from the guardhouse, O’Malley made a circular motion with his arm for the driver to roll down his window. The car pulled even with him as the glass slid down accordingly.

“Evening,” O’Malley said, his thick Irish accent the only sound on an otherwise deserted dock. He remained a few feet back from the car so he could stand erect and still see inside.

The driver wore a black fedora tilted to the side, his face hidden from view. He made no attempt to uncover his face, or even glance in O’Malley’s direction.

“Evening.”

O’Malley noticed the hat and the black driving gloves, his nerves on edge. He also noticed the lilt of the voice, something far removed from what he usually encountered on the south end of Boston. “What brings you by tonight?”

“You do,” the driver replied, rotating his head and allowing O’Malley to look him full in the face. With his right hand he raised a Heckler & Koch P7, a noise suppressor screwed onto the end, elongating the barrel by several inches.

“What the hell?” O’Malley asked, raising his hands and taking a step backwards, his face twisted up in surprise.

He made it only three steps before the first round slammed into him, followed by another, and another. Together they formed a small triangle on his chest, the force of them driving him back into the guardhouse before his legs gave out, his body toppling to the ground.

The driver’s side window was already up, the sedan moving forward, by the time O’Malley came to a stop face down on the pavement. It pulled ahead to a pair of large metal containers halfway down the dock and stopped long enough to allow five men to slide from the car.

Dressed in the same suit, gloves, and long jacket as the driver, they moved in complete silence as they removed the locks from the targeted containers and disappeared inside. Less than a minute later the sound of car ignitions could be heard rumbling from within, reverberating off the metal walls.

One by one a 1967 Ferrari, two Lamborghini Testarosas, and two classic Corvettes, all painted bright red, filed out, rolling past the sedan and disappearing into the night. When the last one was gone the sedan shifted back into gear, moving slow as it passed the guardhouse and returned the way it had came.

Behind it O’Malley’s body remained face down on the pavement, nobody making any attempt to cover up what had just taken place.

Chapter Two

Washington, D.C.

 

 

“Thorn Byrd.”

Jeff Ingram didn’t float the name like a question, nor did he place it out there like a statement. Rather, he spat it at the room, daring someone to go against him.

Thorn Byrd was his pick, the prospect he’d followed for three and a half years in a way that bordered on stalking. He’d researched every aspect of his past, analyzed every detail of his upbringing, combed through every facet of his life with a meticulous tenacity that would make the most ardent research scientist proud.

Never before had Ingram gotten one past the board, but this was it. This kid was the one he was banking his career on.

He was zero for two already. This was his last shot.

Ingram stood in front of the room and waited for the challenge he knew was coming. It only took a moment for Rom Birkwood – the consummate prick in the room – to oblige.

“Jesus, three years at the best college in the world and this is the best you can do?”

Ingram glared at Birkwood before scanning the men before him. In total six of them sat staring back, each in shirtsleeves and crisp ties with designer suit jackets draped across the back of their chairs. They had been sitting for over eleven hours, but each looked as composed as the minute they arrived.

Together they comprised the board, the men who decided which picks were chosen, and which went on to lead the lives they were already planning to.

On the opposite end of the company hierarchy were people like Ingram, known simply as evaluators. They were hired in on five-year contracts and placed throughout the country in elite settings to scour for the best and brightest talent available. Three times in those five years they were allowed to present the board with someone they deemed worthy. If one of their choices survived the board, they were offered employment and the evaluator was promoted to handler.

If their picks were not selected, they went on with their life as if the last five years had never happened.

No line item on a resume. No future recommendation letters.

For the previous fifty-six months Ingram had lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, scanning the hallowed ground of Harvard University. Twice before he’d brought squeaky clean kids with trust funds and impeccable credentials before the board and on both occasions had been submarined.

This time Ingram had something a little bit different on tap for them, something nobody would see coming.

There was no way in hell Birkwood was bringing him down again.

“I’m assuming that was rhetorical,” Ingram shot back, the remark raising a few eyebrows around the table.

“So that’s how it’s going to be?” Birkwood asked, fighting a losing battle to keep his voice level as blotches of red appeared on his cheeks.

“We’ve been down this path twice before, you and I,” Ingram countered, motioning between them with his thumb and forefinger. “You made the rules. I’ve just decided to play by them.”

Birkwood stared at Ingram for several long seconds before sliding his gaze down to the papers before him. “All right then, let’s start at the beginning.

“Hometown – Charleston, South Carolina. You are aware we need operatives that can assimilate and disappear at a moment’s notice, right?”

It was exactly where Ingram had anticipated the questioning would begin. “I am. He doesn’t have an accent.”

“None?” asked a man Ingram knew by name to be John Lewis, his voice entering from the opposite end of the table.

“Not anymore,” Ingram answered. “He had a light drawl when he arrived on campus but after a couple of professors insinuated it sounded less-than-intelligent, he learned to mask it.

“Now, the only people who know he has it are the ones he wants to know. Took me two years to hear a shred of it.”

The room accepted the response as Birkwood scanned for another pitfall.

“Activities – varsity football. How many brain cells does he even have left?”

Ingram lowered his head a moment, blowing a long breath out through his nose. He kept his pulse even, not wanting his face to shine red or for a sheen of sweat to coat his features as he counted to five before answering.

“Every single person that attends Harvard gets in because they’re exceptional at something. For some, that is physics. For others, it is football.”

He paused, again looking over the faces before him.

“And tomorrow morning he graduates in good standing with the rest of his class, despite giving fifty hours a week to football and many more to the Navy Reserve. It is my understanding those are the type of skills this company is looking for.”

Ingram didn’t expect many of the men in the room to know football well enough to bother going into the specifics of it or how it might translate to future employment. Everything he had to say was in the report if they wanted to pursue it, but for the time being he was content to go the route of brevity.

“That’s how you met this one, right? Through football?” Bryce Stepoli, the senior man in the room, asked. A thick swath of silver hair was combed straight back on his head and, when he spoke, the others around him paused and waited for a response.

“Yes,” Ingram replied, coupling it with a nod. “Part of my cover was serving as a graduate assistant on the football team. This one caught my eye the first day he was on campus. Got into a scrap with the team captain and gave him six stitches under the chin.”

A few heads lowered themselves as Ingram paused, scribbling notes in the packets strewn before them.

“Yeah, seems this kid fashions himself a bit of a pugilist,” Birkwood said. “Two charges for assault. Again, we’re looking for invisibility here, not common street thugs.”

It was the second question Ingram had walked in expecting from Birkwood.

“Two things,” Ingram replied. “First, he was taught to fight in the Navy. Despite your insinuation, he doesn’t fashion himself anything.

“Second, if you’d read the attached information, you’d know that the charges were dropped right after being filed.”

“Doesn’t change the fact that the charges were brought.”

“Nor does the fact that they were brought because he beat the hell out of two men trying to mug an old woman.”

Ingram knew he was walking a tight line between confidence and insubordination, but he wasn’t about to back off. Twice before he’d come in kissing asses and both times he’d ended up bounced out on his.

A man with a shaved head and goatee seated three chairs down from Stepoli rifled through the file before pausing. “I notice his mother’s passed.”

“That’s right.”

“And that her time of death and his date of birth are the same.”

“That’s right,” Ingram repeated. “They were caught in a snowstorm when he was born and she had to deliver in the car beside the road. There were complications and she died before reaching the hospital.”

The story was one he unearthed through no small amount of digging, the kind of thing he instantly wished he hadn’t found. He kept the thought off his face as he stood and waited, the inevitable follow up soon to come.

“Is that a problem?”

Ingram shook his head. “No, if anything, it strengthens our position. He has no other siblings and his father never remarried. It’s just the two of them.”

“Fewer connections, less back story to deal with,” Lewis said.

“Agreed,” acknowledged Ingram.

Stepoli leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. The room grew silent around him as he closed the top of the file and pushed it away, lacing his fingers before him.

“We’ve been sitting here for eleven hours looking over folders of candidates from all the right families with all the right grades and test scores and extra-curricular activities. You’ve been here before, you know how it works.”

He paused for a moment, looking the length of the table. “Now, for some reason, this time you chose to bring us a southern football player with a straight B average from a one-parent home. Someone that put in his two years active duty with the Navy, then promptly walked away the minute it was up despite being requested to stay on.”

Again he paused, his face showing that he was being careful in choosing his words. “I’m wondering, why? What is it you see here that makes you willing to gamble your career on him? What makes you think this is what we’re looking for?”

Ingram paused and looked down at the polished black marble in front of him. He pretended to be contemplating the question, though he didn’t need to search for any answers. It was an inquiry that had been posed in each of his prior meetings and one he’d been praying would come again.

“You’re right,” Ingram said, raising his gaze, nodding slightly. “Thorn Byrd isn’t the same spit-shined, spoon-fed, son of fortunate that usually gets paraded through here.

“But let me ask you this, what normally happens to those kids? We pride ourselves on finding the best there is, yet, for some reason, we have a retention and survival rate of just over forty percent.

“Personally, I think it’s because we’re going after the wrong people. We target guys that look great on paper, but don’t know how to deal with adversity because they’ve never had to.”

He paused for a moment, making sure he still held the rapt attention of every man before him.

“So this time I took a different tact. I sat down and asked myself what kind of man I would want to work with if we did survive the vetting process and the answer was pretty plain to see.

“I’ll take a guy that’s hungry over a guy that’s gifted any time.” Raising his right hand, he pointed at the folders spread across the table. “And this kid has a hunger for life unlike anybody I’ve ever seen.”

Chapter Three

Havana, Cuba

 

 

The calendar said it was only June, but already the air was stifling. Thick and stagnant, it attracted insects and odors, seeming to grip them both in an interminable holding pattern.

Already tired of dealing with both, Nio Garcia swept his dark hair across his forehead and flung the residual sweat droplets to the ground with a flick of his hand. He wasn’t sure how long he had been seated on the floor of the cramped shipping container, even less certain how much longer he would have to be. Terrible fatigue had long since gripped him, the hours of sweating in the portable oven taking their toll on his body.

Most of the people bunched tight in the room with him were what the rest of the world would call refugees, fleeing their homeland for the promise of a better life. They had paid someone they didn’t know a great deal of money they didn’t have to take them someplace they’d never been.

To many of the fellow Cubans they were leaving behind, they were simply deemed lucky.

The path Garcia had taken in getting here was much different from most of the people around him, having never been a mistreated field worker or forced to spend years in the military. Despite being a pureblooded Cuban, four days prior was the first time he had ever set foot on the island.

Three years before Nio was born, his parents had managed to escape aboard a fishing trawler. Together they had taken nothing more than the clothes on their back and spent two days hidden beneath fifty pounds of mildewed fishing nets. When at last they emerged to feel the sun on their faces again they were standing on the beaches of Florida, indebted to the men that had brought them but having never felt freer in their lives.

It took two years of hard work in Miami to clear the debt of their passage and once it was gone, they pushed north up the coast to Fort Lauderdale.

It was there that Nio was born.

Nearly twenty-three years after arriving in America, word was received that Jorge’s father was in poor health and would not be long for the world. Despite the arguments of his family, Jorge insisted on seeing his father before he passed.

With improved border security and tighter Coast Guard precautions, the days of using old fishing charters for getting on and off the island were a thing of the past. Jorge contacted several noted Cubans in the area and found that the most trusted way in and out of the country was through an operation in Boston, Massachusetts.

Without question, he took the next flight north.

Five days after his departure a blank post card arrived postmarked from Havana letting his family know that he was safe.

It was the last word anybody had heard from him in over three weeks.

Nio waited in hope that his father would return, but with each passing day his anxieties grew. After a week he approached his mother about going in search of him, but she balked at the idea, warning him against doing anything rash. At the end of the second week, he had approached her with the same request.

She wrote him a check for the plane ticket without asking a single question.

The next morning, Nio contacted the University of Miami to let them know he was taking a leave of absence before reaching out to the same outfit in Boston and making arrangements.

The trip south had been a damp and sweaty two days, most of it spent in complete darkness, listening to the metal of the old boat groan with each wave it crested. The ride was made in near solitude, a product of very few people ever wanting back on the island once they were off.

Now just days later, Nio found himself wishing he had that kind of space again.

Forty-eight hours had been the sum total of his time in Havana, every last one of them spent searching for his father. In the course of those two days he was able to track down his grandmother, two aunts, and an uncle, enduring their tears as they extolled their joy at meeting him for the first time. To the person, every last one of them told of how great it had been to see his father.

In equal measure, they also informed him that not one of them had heard from him since his departure weeks before.

Tucked into the corner of the container, Nio sat with his chin on his knees, sweaty flesh pressed in on him from every direction as the doors burst open. A flood of bright lights punctuated the darkness, causing many to wince, some murmuring with hope that an end to their perpetual holding period was finally at hand.

To their chagrin, it was nothing more than the arrival of more passengers, extra bodies to be wedged into the darkness, more humanity to smash into a space that could ill afford it.

After almost two days seated in the container, the scene didn’t even register with Nio. He had seen it play out a dozen times before, felt reasonably certain it would again before the return leg of his journey was finally under way.

Chapter Four

 

 

The vice president of Harvard University walked to the microphone with a smile stretched across her face. With a nod to the dramatic, she paused in front of the microphone and surveyed the crowd one last time. Over five thousand students filled the vast majority of the Yard in matching red and black robes, offset by twice that many proud friends and family members pressed in behind them.

“Mr. Sheriff, please give us closure!” she trumpeted into the microphone, the crowd before her breaking into enthusiastic applause as the Sheriff of Middlesex County rose from his seat and walked stiff-legged across the stage to join her. Dressed in an old-time tuxedo and top hot, thick streaks of sweat lined his face as he leaned on his long, black cane, a golden orb gleaming from the top of it.

Stopping just in front of her, the sheriff dutifully lifted and struck down the cane three times. The base of it made a clacking sound against the stage, echoing out through the microphone and across the grounds. Drawing his breath in and dropping his voice several octaves, he leaned forward and called out, “I hereby bring these proceedings to a close!”

The words barely made their way out before a mighty roar engulfed them. At once, a sea of graduation caps rose into the air, blotting the sun from the sky. They hung suspended for several seconds before falling back to the ground, raining down on a throng of young adults hugging, laughing, and smiling.

Among them was Thorn Byrd.

Standing in the warm sunshine he turned in a slow circle, taking it all in, an eye in a storm of delirium. He watched as students grouped up and smiled for pictures, as grad students lit cigars and passed them between one another, as parents rushed forward and hugged their children in delight.

In total he gave the scene one full minute before reaching his fill and pulling away from the crowd, out past Memorial Church and toward the opposite end of the Yard. Around him he could hear classmates calling to one another and see them smiling for cameras, but he paid them no mind.

Instead, one of the largest men on campus slipped through the crowd as if it weren’t even there. By the time he reached the wrought iron gate marking the center of campus his cap and gown were already stripped away, nothing more than a tight ball beneath his arm.

Head down, Thorn cut a path toward his room on the outer edge of campus. Ambling slowly, he stretched the fifteen minute walk to twenty before finding the satellite building of his dorm and climbing the three floors of stairs. Upon entering, he dumped the cap and gown into an armchair and flopped his long frame down across the couch.

Letting out a long exhalation, he lay motionless, kneading the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. The silence of the room settled in around him and, without opening his eyes, he pursed his lips together and whistled a soft note.

On cue, the sound of toenails clattering on a hardwood floor beckoned toward him.

A reflexive smile traced Thorn’s face as he dropped his hand and rotated on the couch, ready to receive his English bulldog as she padded out from the bedroom. Normally a font of playful exuberance, the smile faded from Thorn’s face as he watched her timid approach, her body hunched, hindquarters set low to the ground.

“Abigail, what’s wrong?” Thorn asked, raising himself to a seated position. Already he could feel his pulse rise a beat within him, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees, body poised to receive his canine charge.

In measured steps Abigail shuffled toward him, keeping her eyes to the ground as she came to a stop, her front paw resting atop his foot. She raised her soft brown eyes toward him to reveal a thin tendril of blood running from her left nostril before looking away, her response seeming to be equal parts embarrassment and shame.

“What the hell?” Thorn said, his eyes narrowing. He strode into the bathroom and threw a quick glance around before stepping into the bedroom where a splash of white offset against his dark green comforter caught his gaze.

A single white note card, printed in simple script.

Observatory. Top floor. Now.

Chapter Five

 

 

The back of Thorn’s fist connected solid with the door, sending an echo through the room on the other side. He paused before raising his hand and knocking again, the sound met by the shuffling of bare feet on a hardwood floor. A moment later the door swung open as a girl with dark skin and long hair leaned against the doorjamb. Despite the hour she was still in her pajamas, tendrils of red cutting a webbed pattern across the whites of her eyes.

“Morning, Thorn,” she managed, her voice muffled.

“Afternoon, Angela.”

A sleepy smile was her only response, masking a throaty chuckle as she ran a hand up the back of her head and scratched at her hair. “Guess we missed the ceremony, huh?”

“Meh,” Thorn said, letting a smile grow on his face, waving a hand at her. ”You’re only juniors. You’ll see it all next year.”

Again Angela laughed, one hand still using the door frame for support, her body swaying just a bit. “Yeah, we might have gotten a bit carried away last night.”

Thorn, along with most of Cambridge, had heard them come in at a quarter past five. It was far from the first time they had woken him in the middle of the night, but he didn’t have the heart to point it out.

“I was wondering if I might be able to snag a small favor from you.”

The hand fell away from the back of Angela’s hair as she stared at him. “Anything you need, Sweetie.”

“I was wondering if you could watch Abby a little while for me. She’s been a bit skittish since the storm the other night, doesn’t like to be left alone.”

Any bit of concern faded away as a smile creased Angela’s face, her hands coming together in a silent clap in front of her. “Of course. We’d love to have Abby!”

Deep inside the room, the sound of a second person lumbering to life could be heard. The shuffling sound of feet dragging along the floor was audible, followed by a second voice calling, “We love Abby!”

Turning at the waist, Thorn pushed out a two-note whistle, drawing Abby out of the room and across the landing. She passed her rib cage against Thorn’s calf before presenting herself before Angela, entire body quivering.

With a playful squeal Angela descended on the dog as Thorn excused himself down the stairs. The smile fell away as he went, content in knowing that regardless what he found at the observatory, his dog was safe.

Setting his jaw, Thorn burst out the front door of his dorm and jogged across the quad, passing graduates and their families still littering the sidewalks. Maintaining a quick pace, he darted by a trio of university buildings sitting silent for the weekend and made his way to the Astronomy Center, any semblance of foot traffic falling away behind him.

The sound of his feet slapping against tile echoed through the stairwell as he took the steps two and three at a time, the rubber soles of his running shoes squeaking every time he made a turn. With each flight, his nerves became sharper and a sweat formed along his brow.

There was no way to know what lay before him. Somehow in the preceding hour, somebody had managed to enter a locked room and leave behind a message in a move that fell somewhere between clandestine and corny. In the process, they had managed to assault one of only two people in the world he truly felt protective of.

Whatever reason these people had for wanting to speak to him, it had better be worth the wrath they had incurred to do so.

Pulse racing, Thorn climbed the last steps and pushed his way through a set of metal double doors. His pupils dilated as a dim room materialized before him, the space stretched the length of the building, encompassing the entire top floor.

Standing in a loose cluster in the center of it was a trio of men, all wearing suits, all middle aged. Not one said a word as he entered, their attention aimed his direction, their faces void of any surprise at his sudden appearance.

Thorn waited a moment to let his sight adjust before stepping forward, his hands balled by his sides. Sliding a hand into his pocket, he extracted the crumpled note from his bedroom and flipped it toward them, the wadded paper landing on the floor between them. “Which one of you assholes hit my dog?”

The three men glanced between each other before the one in the center took the lead.

“If she’d have just let us deliver the note and be on our way, nothing would have happened to her.”

A single sentence and Thorn knew beyond a measure of doubt the man in front of him was the one responsible for the blood on Abby’s lip. The way he carried himself – from his pompadour hair style to his overly tanned skin – relayed extreme self-importance. Even the way he spoke made it obvious how little regard he held for the man across from him.

Feeling his heart rate quicken again, Thorn tapped his balled hands against his thighs. “I hope it was worth it.”

The right side of the man’s mouth pulled back in a sneer, revealing teeth that had been bleached to a neon shine. “Just like that and you’re ready to fight?”

The question was obviously meant as bait, but Thorn found it hard to care. “Not so inclined when the opponent can hit you back?”

The sneer grew a bit larger. “You really are an arrogant little punk. There are three of us here, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

Thorn took a half step back, watching as the look on the man’s face grew into a full smile. He ignored it as he glanced to the men on either side of him before stepping forward again.

“Your boy on the right favors his left side,” Thorn said, his attention aimed straight ahead. “My guess is a knee injury. One quick snap kick and he’s done.”

The smile faded from the man’s face as Thorn continued.

“To my left, his right hand curls into itself between the middle two knuckles, looks like a bad break that never healed properly. Since the majority of the world is right handed, I’d venture a guess that’s his dominant side, making it pretty much useless in a fight.”

The look fell completely away from the man’s face as Thorn took another step forward, mere inches separating the two. “Which leaves just me and you. I have to say, from where I’m standing, I like my odds.”

The man stood in complete silence a moment, his mouth working up and down, searching for the right words. Before any came to him a familiar voice interrupted, calling out to Thorn, stopping the scene before it escalated any further.

“I don’t think that’ll be necessary.”

It took a moment for Thorn to place it, fighting to push aside the acrimony within him and focus on the sound he’d heard.

“Coach Ingram?” Thorn asked, the right side of his face twisted up in surprise, his body rotating at the waist to ensure he was hearing correctly.

“We’re not on the field anymore, Thorn,” Ingram said, emerging from the darkened corner of the room, his footfalls landing soft across the floor. “It’s just Jeff.”

“What’s all this about, Coach?” Thorn asked, ignoring the directive.

Ingram came to stop a few feet out, closing the circle around Thorn. “These men and I are here to offer you a job.”

The hostility within faded a bit more, replaced by open confusion. Thorn kept his features impassive and waited a long moment before allowing his surprise to show. “What?”

Raising the back of his hand, Ingram curled his fingers toward himself, motioning for Thorn to follow. Without waiting for any outward sign he took off for a metal staircase in the corner and began climbing, the rungs ringing out beneath his weight.

Thorn paused until Ingram was halfway up before turning to scowl at the three men behind him. Not one gave any reaction as he left them standing in the center of the room and walked on, taking the stairs two at a time.

A single steel door painted red pushed open onto the roof, the midday light washing over him as he stepped out onto the roof. Thorn took just two steps before pulling to a stop, allowing the door to swing shut behind him.

“So, you’re wondering what the hell’s going on right now?” Ingram opened, shoving his hands in his pockets and turning to stare at Thorn.

”Let me see here,” Thorn said, making no effort to mask the disdain in his voice. “In the last hour I have graduated college, discovered my dog was assaulted, found a note lying on my bed, and am now having a conversation with my football coach on the roof of the observatory.

“I’d say your assessment might be a bit of an understatement.”

Just mentioning everything that had taken place, seeing the face of the man downstairs in his mind, brought back a fresh flood of anger to Thorn.

“First of all, I didn’t have anything to do with your dog,” Ingram said. “That was Birkwood, the prick you threatened downstairs a minute ago. Second, I’m not your coach anymore. Never really was.”

“Sure seemed like it,” Thorn said, his eyes narrowed, head twisting a bit at the neck.

Turning on the ball of his foot, Ingram walked toward the edge of the building, a waist-high brick wall encompassing everything. “More of a scout than a coach actually.”

“For?” Thorn asked, his attention tracking Ingram as he moved, his feet remaining planted.

Ingram paused, pushing out a long sigh. “I was hoping I’d have a chance to do a little massaging before we got right down to it like this.”

“No such luck, I guess.”

Coming to the edge of the roof, Ingram turned and rested his backside against the dark red brick, his hands still deep in the front of his slacks. “I work for a company that specializes in selecting and training covert operatives. I’m offering you the chance to join.”

Thorn’s reaction betrayed nothing, though a large handful of responses running the gamut from shock to ridicule sprang to mind. “Right.”

A hint of a smile pulled at Ingram’s mouth. “I thought that might get your interest.”

“Disbelief, not interest.”

The mirth fell from Ingram as he nodded. “Like I said, I was hoping I’d have a little more time to set this up.”

Dropping his attention to the ground, Ingram nudged a pebble with the toe of his shoe, sending it skittering across the rubber membrane covering the top of the building.

“Alright, here’s the official pitch. The people I work for employ scads of young men such as you to perform a wide array of tasks the world over.”

“Right,” Thorn repeated, a look of skepticism still on his face. “Such as?”

“Honestly? Whatever needs doing. We have people that specialize in everything from computer science to corporate espionage.”

“I can’t help with either one,” Thorn said, his voice still relaying his thoughts on the matter.

“Nor do we want you to,” Ingram replied. “We don’t want finished products, we want talent.”

Thorn waited a moment, expecting there to be more to the pitch. When none came, he shifted his body a quarter turn to face Ingram head-on, folding his arms across his chest. “So that’s it? One day I get a note and find out I’m being recruited to some off-the-books government agency?”

“No,” Ingram said, shaking his head, “because we’re not government. We do a lot of business with them, but we are privately owned and funded.”

“Not what I meant.”

“I know,” Ingram said, bobbing his head, again dropping his attention to the ground.

There he remained, the only sounds the ambient noises of the city around them, the errant dins of traffic in the distance. Thorn waited as the man across from him wrestled with the words he was looking for, pushing down the myriad of questions deep within.

“Here’s the deal,” Ingram said, raising his attention to Thorn. “I know how it sounds, I thought the same thing when I was first brought on. Believe me when I tell you though, this thing is legit.”

“And that’s all I have to go on?” Thorn asked.

“No,” Ingram said, twisting his head side to side and extracting his hands from his pockets, folding his arms over his chest. “What you have to go on is I am staking my entire career on you.”

The words narrowed Thorn’s eyes, his only visible response. “Meaning?”

“Meaning this is my last shot,” Ingram said. “If you choose to come onboard, I become your handler and we go to work. If not, we both go our separate ways.”

“If I choose?”

“It’s a job offer, not a sentence.”

Keeping his attention aimed at Ingram, Thorn slowly crossed over to the wall and matched his pose, leaning back against the brick. He could feel the cool temperature passing through his shirt as he settled against it, working to process what he’d just been told.

“You realize how outrageous this all sounds, right?”

Ingram nodded his head. “I do.”

“And what makes you think I’m best suited for any of this?”

“Right now, you’re not,” Ingram responded. “Your time in the military will put you ahead of most new recruits, but the learning curve will be steep for both of us.”

Thorn shifted his gaze away from Ingram, letting his focus settle on the distance. He allowed his eyes to glaze over as he tried to make sense of what he’d been told, the sum total of it sounding nothing short of preposterous. “Let me guess, I’m not allowed to say a word to my pop about this when he calls later?”

“No, you can,” Ingram replied. “Again, it’s an offer, not a sentence. I don’t know that I’d give him all the details, but it’s still easier than a fully falsified life.”

Thorn nodded slightly, his head rising no more than an inch.

“We’ll provide you with whatever back story you need, most likely involving – ironically enough – government work,” Ingram said before tacking on, “It’s broad enough to be easily manipulated.”

Despite everything Ingram had just told him, it was obvious there was still a great deal that was being withheld. Thorn stood in silence and tried to determine what that might be, though at the moment there was still too much he didn’t know to be able to pinpoint what was missing.

Given the situation, he took the only course available to him.

“So, what’s the catch?”

Pushing his hips back against the wall, Ingram rose to full height and turned to face in the opposite direction, his forearms resting on the wall. “The catch is, this line of work isn’t easy, it isn’t always safe, and it damned sure isn’t for everyone. At the same time, many of the projects we take on are of the highest priority. You’ll be working with cutting edge stuff and you’ll be well compensated for it.”

The answer wasn’t everything Thorn was hoping for, but at the moment he conceded it was probably the best he’d get. “So that’s it?”

“That’s it,” Ingram said.

Silence again fell as the two men stared in contradictory directions, neither glancing at the other.

“You realize this isn’t a very compelling offer.”

Ingram pushed out a sigh. “Yeah.”

Thorn paused again, thinking about everything he’d just been told. When he had been recruited to the navy, and again later to college football, he’d been filled with promises of grandeur.

At the very least these guys had the decency to shoot straight with him.

“When do you need my answer?”

“Offer stands for six hours.”

“How will I find you?”

“I’ll find you.”

The sound of heavy steps coming up the stairs drew both their attentions toward the door, each watching as Birkwood emerged and strode across the roof.

“So, can we stop kissing this little punk’s ass and get to work?” he asked, not waiting for acknowledgment from either person. “Lord knows he’s got a long way to go.”

Once more vitriol rose in the back of Thorn’s throat, rising like bile, tasting bitter in his mouth. “Don’t pretend you know a damn thing about me.”

“Ha!” Birkwood snapped, the same smug expression returning to his face. “Boy, I know everything there is to know about you. I know where you’re from, your service record, your GPA, where you like to get your late night pizza.”

He took a step closer to Thorn, his sneer growing in size as he leaned forward, lowering his voice just a bit. “I even know what happened to your mother on the day you were born.”

Fire flashed behind Thorn’s eyes as Ingram pushed himself up from the wall to stand between them. He kept his own glare focused on Birkwood and asked, “So what do you say, Thorn?”

Thorn could feel his pulse hammering through his temples as he stared at the man across from him. In less than an hour he had had the gall to attack his dog and mention his mother.

It took everything Thorn had not to fly across at him.

Swallowing his body’s inclination down the best he could, Thorn pushed away from the wall and circled around Ingram. He leveled a penetrating stare on Birkwood and stepped past him, headed for the stairwell.

“That’s what I thought,” Birkwood muttered as he went, amusement obvious in the tone.

In one fluid movement Thorn pivoted on the ball of his foot and unfurled an overhand right that caught Birkwood across the bridge of his nose. Like a piston he drove his arm through his target, pushing it forward until it was fully extended from his body.

The impact of the blow lifted Birkwood from the ground, depositing him in a heap at the base of the concrete wall. His eyes rolled back in his head as bright red blood droplets dripped from his nose and off his chin, speckling the front of his shirt.

Thorn stood there over his opponent, his body poised, before the tension within him receded, his focus rising back to Ingram.

“I say, before I can even consider this thing, we have to be on the level. He hit my dog and he insulted my mother.”

Ingram glanced between Thorn and Birkwood’s inert form. “I understand.”

Thorn nodded and turned for the stairs. “I’ll let you know.”

Chapter Six

 

 

During daylight hours, there were few places as busy in all of New England as the Dorchester docks, a hub of organized insanity. At any given moment one could stand and spot ships entering and exiting port. Crew members tying off boats. Forklifts loading and unloading supplies. People of all different sizes and ethnicities running about, their destinations as varied as the vessels they came in on.

For as active as the docks remained during the day, the combined effect of that activity ground to a halt with the arrival of darkness. With little to no boat traffic there was no cargo to unload, no deckhands needed on standby.

In early June, darkness could be counted on to descend upon Boston somewhere between 8:00 and 8:30. On Wednesday the 3rd, it hit at 8:18, nearly splitting the difference.

Seamus Reilly’s shift had started a couple of hours earlier at 6:30, a small overlap existing with the afternoon crew to assist in end-of-day tasks. It was just his second week on the job and he was still learning, though there wasn’t a great deal more he had to discover. Already he had mastered the night shift and was fast becoming able to run the day-end tasks each afternoon by himself.

Another week and everything he did would be from muscle memory, the practiced skills of rote repetition.

Unlike many of the workers on the docks, Seamus had not grown up in the trade. A call had gone up in the old Irish neighborhoods a month before looking for able-bodied workers and he had signed on. Times were tough and the factory he’d been at for eighteen years had shut down without warning.

No pension, no gold watch. Just a sign on the door and a pat on the back from his old boss.

When the call for workers first went out it was accompanied by the usual gossip from the rumor mill, this time coupled with a warning that some boys had met a bad end working there. The stories were varied as to exactly what had happened, but the punch line seemed to be that somebody was picking off dock hands for sport.

The tales might have spooked some potential applicants, but they barely even registered with Seamus. At thirty-five years, old he couldn’t much read nor do basic math, but he was handy in a scrap.

That much he knew from a lifetime of experience. If getting into an occasional fisticuff was the worst part of the job, then Seamus figured he’d found his new calling.

At 8:30 Seamus made another round, carrying a clipboard and checking off items as he completed them. The docks were quiet, the only sounds his boots scraping against the ground and the occasional gull calling out as it floated by. He made the same trip at 9:30 and again at 10:30, each time finishing the loop without marking down a single thing of note.

As the clock trudged toward midnight, Seamus felt a deep boredom begin to set in. For eighteen years he’d worked with an acetylene torch in his hand, a trade that kept his senses sharp and the clock moving. Now, he couldn’t help but watch the minutes crawl by.

A few minutes before 11:30, Seamus stepped out from the guardhouse, clipboard in hand. The Sox were off for the night and without a game to listen to, the small metal outbuilding seemed cramped.

In no particular hurry, Seamus started on the north end of the lot and made another pass through. Going beyond the standard items on his list, he went out of his way to check the knots on rope riggings and bulbs on security lamps. Before long, he even began tugging locks on the metal containers to ensure they were fastened tight.

Tedious, but it helped pass the time.

The extra tasks added over ten minutes to the round and Seamus finished right at midnight. While a bit crisp, the evening was pleasant and he began to whistle an old Creedence Clearwater Revival song as he walked back toward the guardhouse. He kept an easy pace through the deserted docks, walking with no particular purpose until he rounded the final corner and spotted his destination up ahead.

Leaning against the outer wall of it was a solitary figure, dressed all in black. The man was too far away for Seamus to make out any features, but he could see the man was wearing an older style fedora and smoking a cigarette.

The tune fell away from Sheamus’s lips as the hair on the back of his neck rose. Since taking over the shift by himself on day, three he had yet to see another soul on the dock at night.

The appearance of one now could not be a good sign.

Seamus slid the clipboard into his left hand and pushed his right into his jacket pocket. Without breaking stride, he wrapped his fingers around the roll of quarters he kept stowed there, the plastic casing on it feeling cool to the touch.

“Hello there,” Seamus called as he approached, waving the clipboard with his left hand.

Without tilting the fedora up from the ground, the man replied, “Hello there.”

Seamus noticed the thick accent immediately, not sure where it had originated, but noting it definitely wasn’t Irish. “Boss send you out here for something?”

“You could say that,” the man replied, a touch of amusement in his tone.

“Never seen you out this way before,” Seamus commented, pulling to a stop half a dozen feet from the guardhouse and shifting his weight forward onto the balls of his feet, “but I’m pretty new here. What did you say your name was?”

The man shook his head, the overhead light casting a shadow from his hat that seemed to envelope his entire body. “I didn’t.”

Past encounters had taught Seamus when somebody was looking for trouble, it was always better to be the aggressor. He had no idea who this man was or what he wanted, but his sudden appearance, his icy demeanor, made it apparent he carried ill will.

Dropping the clipboard to the ground, Seamus pulled the roll of quarters from his pocket and charged forward, swinging his right hand low, preparing it for a massive uppercut. The fist made it just past his hip before the man shuffle-stepped forward and hit a snap kick to the throat before retreating to the side of the building and placing the cigarette back between his lips.

The roll of quarters was the first thing to hit the ground, the clear binding on it giving way, sending silver splashing across the concrete. A moment later Seamus fell to his knees in the middle of the mess, gasping and pawing at his neck, his body fighting to draw in air.

Thick streams of blood swelled in his throat and ran down his tongue, dripping off his chin and onto the ground below. Sweat poured from his face as his skin receded to pale blue, oxygen deprivation setting in, his body unable to draw air through a crushed larynx.

The man stood and watched until Seamus came to a stop face down on the ground before crushing out his cigarette and placing the butt in his coat pocket. Pushing his front teeth over his bottom lip, he blew out a shrill whistle, answered on command by a set of headlights appearing from the darkness.

A low rumble emanated through the night as the lights rolled closer, a pickup truck on oversized tires emerging. With a quick overhand wave, the man watched as the truck rolled past him and crawled toward the opposite end of the dock. He lit another cigarette and remained stationary as the truck coasted to a stop over fifty yards ahead of him.

Pausing for a moment to select a target, it idled forward and brought the front bumper to rest against a nondescript brown container. It remained motionless just long enough to shift into gear before the brake lights blinked out and the engine kicked to life.

The sound of heavy diesel exhaust filled the night air for several long seconds, angry bursts of smoke combined with the metallic whine of cylinders running hot. A moment later the sounds were joined by tires squealing against concrete, the smell of burnt rubber drifting through the air.

The final sound to join the crescendo was the bottom of the container scraping against concrete. Inch by inch it nudged its way toward the edge of the pier, asphalt and metal protesting in a strained wail.

The front of the truck remained flush with the container until it reached a tipping point and began its inevitable slide toward the water.

Less than five feet from the edge, the enormous machine came to a stop, its red brake lights flaring. It remained idling in place as the container slid into the water, standing vigil as the massive weight of the metal hulk pulled it beneath the surface. Once it was gone from sight, the truck eased into reverse before turning and exiting the same way it had entered.

Standing against the guardhouse, the man waited until the taillights of the truck were gone before crushing out his cigarette and disappearing into the darkness.

On the ground, he left Seamus’ dead body, ten dollars in coins scattered around him.

In the water, he left a container full of people whose fates would soon be much the same.

Chapter Seven

 

 

Marc Tallo was the first to arrive. From the back seat of his Rolls Royce, he could see no other cars parked along the cobblestone driveway that wrapped in front of the mansion. As the driver throttled down at the foot of the walkway to the main house Tallo motioned him forward, flicking his hand in a quick wave. “Pull on ahead. I’ll wait for the others and we’ll walk in together.”

The driver offered a slight nod and crept past the walkway to the far edge of the drive, easing to a stop with a squeak of the brakes, leaving the engine running. A moment later a second set of headlights appeared at the end of the driveway, small pinpricks that grew steadily closer.

“Turner,” Tallo said, watching as a 1921 Duesenberg came into view, sweeping around the fountain in the middle of the driveway. “Showing some class tonight. Good for him.”

The Duesenberg finished its circle and rolled to a stop behind the Rolls. It turned its headlights off and sat in line, Turner also waiting for the final guest to arrive.

Two minutes later, the high beams of the third visitor threw a blinding light across the front of the house. It grew brighter quickly, the car traveling at a great rate of speed.

“Look at that damn thing,” Tallo said, making a face and shaking his head. “Man never has had a single shred of taste.”

Twisting himself on the back seat he watched as a pearl white Cadillac Escalade whipped around the fountain and slid to a stop behind the Duesenberg, spewing gravel and Latin music as it went.

Tallo waited for the music to die away before climbing from the car, his back and knees aching in protest. Standing at five and a half feet tall, he had a thick midsection from years of indulging in Italy’s finest cuisine that gave him the appearance of a perfect square. His thinning, heavily oiled hair was combed straight back, framing a bulbous face. He stood and adjusted his Armani tie and suit jacket before reaching back inside for a large basket.

In order, Billy Turner emerged from the Duesenberg. A couple of inches taller than Tallo, he was fit and wiry. His strawberry blonde hair was cropped close to his head and he wore tan slacks with a white shirt and tweed jacket. He offered a terse nod to Tallo as he emerged, then reached into the car and removed a small wooden cask.

The last man to appear was Luis Cardoza. He climbed from the back of the Escalade and gave a small wave to Tallo and Turner. At six feet, he was the tallest of the three, a fact punctuated by the hat that sat jauntily atop his dark hair. The olive skin of his face was smooth, offset with warm brown eyes and a thin goatee outlining his mouth. He wore a light tan suit with a pink shirt open at the throat.

Cardoza stepped away from the Escalade carrying a small cigar box and waited for the other men to join him. He nodded again as they approached and side by side the three walked up the path to the front of the mansion.

Despite the gifts each man carried, there was no anticipation amongst them of an enjoyable evening.

Together, they represented the heads of the three largest cartels in Boston. Tallo headed the Italian contingent that swallowed most of the North End. Turner was the third generation leader of the Irish, notorious for their presence in South Boston. Cardoza led the Cubans, a group that numerically was inferior to the Italians and Irish, but was working its way up thanks to a booming smuggling empire.

Just ten years before, the thought of the three coming together peaceably would have been absurd. Each faction had a section of the city they were sworn to protect and bloodshed was the cost of doing business.

All that, though, was before Paul Hardy.

Hardy was a businessman, a shipping magnate who managed to build an empire in an era when most people barely understood the concept. From simple beginnings, he had never been on a boat until he turned nineteen, the first one he ever set foot on being the one that brought him to America. Within three years, he owned it and two more like it.

Within ten, he owned a fleet of them.

Holding sway over an untapped market, it didn’t take long for Hardy to become a large player in the Boston economy. Equal parts canny and cunning, his fortune was built on the misfortunes and ineptitudes of his competitors. Fearless to a fault, he quashed every other shipping competitor in New England in establishing his business. Along the way, he picked up several influential friends on both sides of the law, one of the few who managed to do so and live to tell about it.

It was through his reputation and his fortune that Hardy was first able to get Tallo, Turner, and Cardoza in the same room together.

Hardy paid good money to be informed of the happenings around his fleet, especially those occurring so close to home. When word filtered in of the escalating hostilities between the cartels, it became obvious the situation threatened his own interests.

Tallo and the Italians made the bulk of their money transporting automobiles in and out of the country. It was rumored that the cars were lined with copious amounts of cocaine and other narcotics, but nothing had ever been proven. The Italians ran hundreds of cars a year in and out of the city, using container ships to haul automobiles that had been lifted in all parts of America and Italy.

Cardoza and the Cubans also ran a smuggling operation, their cargo of the human variety. With Castro still in place on the island and America’s strict travel boycott, moving humans had become quite a lucrative dealing. At the time Hardy brought them together the operation was still blooming, but he envisioned that within years the enterprise could expand exponentially.

He was right.

The final piece of the puzzle was Turner, head of the Irish that ran the docks. Nothing got in or out without them knowing about it, a fact that presented more than a few headaches for both the Italians and the Cubans. Unable to get their wares past the iron grip the Irish held on the docks, they were forced to seek alternative shipping measures.

It was a situation Hardy recognized right off as a perfect partnership opportunity.

Hardy brought the three together and suggested an armistice in the name of business. He reasoned with Tallo and Cardoza that their overhead and operations would move a great deal smoother with the aid of Turner and the efficient Dorchester docks. To Turner, he implored reasonableness and told him to think of the lives and expense saved by no longer warring with two different factions, not to mention the increased traffic through the docks.

The negotiations took two solid days and resulted in a general understanding. The Cubans and Italians would use container shipping out of the ports to transport their wares. The Irish would allow them to come and go and would keep competitors out. In return, the Cubans and Italians could establish a sizable and profitable business, and the Irish would take a portion of the proceeds from both parties for their efforts.

For his trouble, Hardy took a cut and won the good favor of all three factions.

Some people believed it was only the good fortune he sought and that he could care less about the money.

To be fair, those people had never actually met the man.

Tallo, Turner, and Cardoza strode together through an enormous tiled mezzanine, past a marble staircase that led to the upper floors and into a grand dining room. A long, oak table ran the length of it with fine, high-backed chairs arranged in even intervals. Several crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling and filled the room with soft yellow light.

A buffet was set up alongside the entrance, though each of the men walked right past it. They moved instead to the far end of the room where Hardy stood waiting for them, his expression solemn.

He was of medium height and had a thick swath of hair cut short, with bushy eyebrows and a weak chin. His shoulders were very square, though he certainly was not a muscular man.

“Gentlemen, feel free to grab anything you like from the buffet and have a seat,” Hardy said by way of a greeting.

As the three men approached, Tallo held the basket out in front of him. “Gentlemen, the finest Italian meats and cheeses available. Please, feel free.”

He placed the basket down and walked around Hardy to a chair on the far side of the table.

Turner waited for Tallo to find his seat before he placed the cask on the table beside the basket. “Imported Irish whiskey. Help yourself to as much as you like.”

He too circled around and took a seat next to Tallo.

Cardoza was the last to go, placing the cigar box on the table beside the other gifts. “Hand-rolled cigars from my native Cuba. It would be my privilege if you were to have one.”

He nodded at the other men and pulled out a chair alongside Hardy.

The usual protocol for their meetings was to spend some time sampling the buffet, followed by working their way through the various items on the table. Only once tumblers of whiskey were out and the thick fog of cigar smoke hung in the air did they get down to business.

Tonight, nobody reached for anything. There were no false pretenses to why they were present, no assumptions that the meeting would serve as business-as-usual.

Sensing the gravitas in the room, Hardy nodded and took his seat. He surveyed each of the men before stating, “Gentlemen, I think we all have a general understanding of why we’re here, but I would like to start by having you each describe things from your vantage point. Marc, would you like to begin?”

Tallo glanced at each of them and said, “Three of our last five shipments exiting the country have never made it out. We know they arrived to the port, but before they could be taken to sea, they seemed to disappear.

“In total, seventeen automobiles – gone. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, the kinds of cars that would stand out. So far, no word on them anywhere.”

Tallo contemplated going further, but decided to stop. He looked at Hardy, who paused a moment and turned to Cardoza. “Luis?”

“Last week, a container carrying two hundred and eleven people was sent from Cuba. At some point between its arrival at three in the afternoon and the time we intended to unload it at two in the morning, it disappeared.

“Not until a body was reported washed up two miles down the coast did we figure out what happened.”

Cardoza paused for a moment, letting the others infer what had transpired.

“Where is the container now?” Hardy asked.

His voice low and even, Cardoza nodded with the top of his head toward Turner. “With Billy’s help, we recovered it. All identifying markings have been destroyed, all bodies inside disposed of.”

A low grunt rolled from Hardy as he nodded, chewing on the information, before shifting his attention to Turner. “And on your end?”

Turner leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “In the last three weeks, I’ve lost six workers. We’ve installed motion lights and video cameras but, so far, whoever is doing this has been able to elude them. I’ve since doubled the number of men working and have them now armed at all times.”

Both his hands curled themselves into tight balls, the knuckles flashing white beneath the skin, before being released. As they did so a long sigh slid from him, his body receding back against his chair.

“So the take home message is,” Hardy said, “right now someone is meddling with our affairs, causing us all to lose a great deal of money.”

The words were issued as a statement, not one of the men around the table attempting to answer it.

Hardy rested his elbows on the arms of his chair and brought his fingertips together in front of him, just inches away from his mouth. “Who do we know that would be foolish enough to do such a thing?”

“And have the juice to pull it off?” Turner added.

Across the table, Cardoza jabbed a finger at him, nodding in agreement.

Again silence descended, each of the four men wrestling with the questions posed. Together, they represented most of the real muscle in town. Each faction was suffering losses, meaning the odds of a rogue amongst them weren’t good.

They couldn’t completely discount an outside player, but the chances of it happening weren’t good. The main chunks of turf in Boston had been spoken for for over a century.

Anybody that wanted in on that would have to be well-funded and backed by a significant force.

Chapter Eight

 

 

“Thorn, I’m sorry I couldn’t make it today.”

The connection was a little bit garbled, the voice somewhat distorted, but nowhere near the worst they’d endured.

“I know, Pop. Again, it’s no big deal.” Thorn hoisted a leg through his bedroom window and stepped out onto the balcony, his cell phone pressed to his ear.

“My son graduated from Harvard today, that’s a very big deal,” his father said. “I haven’t shut up about it since I woke this morning. I’m sure everybody here is sick to death of my bragging.”

Thorn chuckled, trying to imagine his father’s cohorts hiding their chagrin at the incessant babble. “We’ve been through this a hundred times. You only get so much leave time, better to wait and take it when we can be home together for a while.”

His father made a response that was reduced to white noise by the connection, his voice too muffled to decipher. Rather than request a repeat Thorn forged ahead. “So, where are you today?”

The line cleared, allowing him to hear a long sigh belying a handful of emotions. “Somewhere in the Mediterranean, nothing but routine patrols. Easiest assignment we’ve had in a while.”

“Good for you,” Thorn said, leaning his body forward and resting his forearms against the metal railing that was actually a fire escape, but he preferred to think of as a balcony. “Any idea how long you’ll be there?”

“Nope. You know they like to keep us on our toes, make sure we don’t have any semblance of a real life.”

Thorn coughed out a half laugh at the line his father had used a thousand times over the years.

“How about you? Made any decisions yet?”

Thorn pushed himself up from the rail and turned, resting his backside against the cool black metal. His eyes glossed over as he shifted his focus and stared out across the grassy quad below, his mind replaying the conversation with Ingram just hours before.

“I’m weighing an offer at the moment, but I haven’t sorted it all out yet.”

The response was true, if not the entirety of it. There was still a lot to consider on the offer he’d been made, a lot of variables that had not yet been divulged. He had no intention of lying to his father, but for whatever reason, he didn’t want to say anything until he had it deciphered in his own head.

“You’re not thinking about going back to active duty are you?”

“God, no,” Thorn responded, the same question and answer that was evoked every time they spoke.

The call lasted another three minutes before an alarm sounded on the opposite end of the line. Both sides said their goodbyes as Thorn climbed back through the window, tossing the phone down on his coffee table. He was still wearing the workout gear from the earlier meeting and sat on the couch just long enough to lace on his running shoes.

Abby watched him with detached interest from the opposite end of it, lifting her head as he rubbed behind her ears and headed for the door.

After his encounter with Birkwood earlier, he no longer felt the need to make sure she was looked after.

There was no chance he would be returning any time soon.

The night air was warm enough to be comfortable but cool enough not to stifle as it wrapped around him, Thorn drawing in a deep breath through his nose. Exhaling it slowly, he kicked himself into motion, settling into a mile-eating lope. While the bulk of the city had congregated around the universities for graduation weekend, the backstreets remained deserted as his feet slapped out a rhythm over the pavement. His shoulders rose and fell in an even pace, the distance disappearing beneath his feet.

Letting the music stream through his headphones, he allowed muscle memory to carry him on the same route he had traversed a hundred times before. In front of him the evening sun slipped toward the horizon, the golden light washing over his body, pinching his eyebrows low to refract it.

His final destination came into view as Thorn pulled the headphones from his ears and carried them by his sides, sweat streaming from his face as he slowed to a walk. Passing through the wrought iron gate that surrounded Mr. Auburn Cemetery, he tossed a wave to the security office standing just inside the grounds and walked forward, the ambient noise of the outside world falling away behind him.

Daylight continued to recede from the sky above as he walked by the old familiar landmarks, past the reflection pond and chapel. Rising from a hilltop in the distance, he could see the lookout tower beckoning him forward, the place deserted save a few squirrels and birds out for a late evening sojourn.

Halfway there he stopped, leaving the concrete roadway and padding silently across the plush grass lawn. Fifty yards later he found what he was looking for, stopping with his arms folded in front of him, staring down.

The marker – if it could even be called that – was his favorite in the entire place. No headstone, no plaque, no dates of memoriam. Just a single dog, carved from gray granite, sitting on its back haunches and staring forward in an eternal vigil.

The only marking of any kind on it was the name Oscar carved into the dog’s collar.

A small smile creased Thorn’s face as he looked down at it, his last stop before ascending the tower and staring out at Boston, wrestling with everything in his mind until he had an answer.

“Well, Oscar, what do you say?” he asked, his low voice seeming to reverberate through the silence.

“The question is, what do you say?” a voice shot back out of the darkness.

A jolt of adrenaline passed through Thorn as he rocked forward onto the balls of his feet, his hands tightened by his sides. For a moment his body was rigid as he prepared to act, but just as fast recognition set in and he relaxed.

“Am I that predictable?”

Emerging from a darkened corner between two trees, Ingram strode forward, his pale face a silhouette above his dark clothing. In measured steps he moved forward and took a spot beside Thorn, gazing down at the statue.

“I like Oscar, too. I don’t know that he’s my favorite in here, but he’s in the top five.”

“How long have you been following me?” Thorn asked, pulling his focus back to Oscar, making sure his voice remained even.

“Long enough to know you’d eventually end up here.”

“So you’ve been waiting awhile.”

“Not long, maybe twenty minutes,” Ingram replied. “Most of the time you get here a little before dark.”

“Had to wait for the call from Pop.”

“Mmm,” Ingram mumbled, nodding his head. He paused for a moment as they both stood motionless in the dark. “So, not to skip the foreplay, but we need an answer.”

“What happens if at some point I want out?” Thorn asked, jumping right to the big issue that had been nagging at him all afternoon.

For what it was, the opportunity was enough to at least pique his interest. If a day, a week, a year later that interest was no longer there, he needed to know he could walk away, no questions asked.

“Then you’re out. Of course there’s an ironclad non-compete clause you’ll have to sign and there may be some compensation repayment, but we’re not going to force someone to stay in the field that doesn’t want to be there. People get hurt, or worse, that way.”

The answer wasn’t everything Thorn wanted to hear, but he received it without revealing anything to Ingram. There was the usual litany of questions about compensation and leave time, but something told him this wasn’t the type of position where haggling was necessary.

For the past six months, Thorn had considered a dozen different directions he could go. He’d fielded job offers from alumni football players working in finance and consulting, had taken the LSAT in case he wanted to apply to law school. His father was high enough in the navy to have some sway should he want to go back in a non-active capacity.

Each one had been dismissed as a fallback, not quite the kind of thing he was looking for.

This could be that thing.

“When do I start?”

A thin smile grew across Ingram’s face. “As soon as you answer one thing for me.”

“What’s that?” Thorn asked, rotating to look at his new boss, already bracing himself for what might be coming.

“How did it feel to lay out that son of a bitch Birkwood this afternoon?”

Chapter Nine

 

 

The first two knocks were quick and sharp, loud raps that reverberated through the metal door and echoed into the hall on the opposite side. There was a momentary pause, followed by a final pound that sounded deep and hollow.

At the sound of the correct cadence, a slit opened on the door as a pair of dark eyes peered out. “Who is it?”

The spotlight from above the door illuminated the top of a fedora, the brim of it throwing a heavy shadow over the face of the visitor. “Must I go through this every time?” he asked, his accent unmistakable.

The peephole slid shut and the sound of a metal lock turning rang out as the door opened, the hinges whining in protest. The guard with the dark eyes stepped to the side while it did so, holding out his left arm and motioning down the empty corridor. “Sorry, Ling. Boss’s orders, you know that.”

Ling waved a dismissive hand at the guard and walked past him into the hallway, the space big and open, well lit and lavishly decorated. Plush carpets covered the floors and rich hues of red and gold created a mesmerizing visual that seem to swirl around him as he cut a path through the center of it.

The sound of the door closing and the lock turning could be heard as he walked past the guardroom and into the main foyer of the house. He was a regular visitor, passing through undisturbed, the few servants still up at such an hour giving him a wide berth.

From the main foyer, Ling took a quick right and ascended two short flights of stairs, his journey ending at a large, open doorway covered by a hanging curtain. Pushing it aside, he took two steps into the room and paused, his hands clasped at his waist, as his employer finished his business opposite him.

Seated behind a wraparound desk, the man stared at a computer screen, his features aglow with ambient light. Every bit of his attention was zoned in on it, not once glancing at Ling waiting just feet away.

”Thank you for coming on such short notice.”

“Of course, Mr. Gold.”

If there was any surprise from either party, no outward display of it was made.

Bern Gold tapped out a few final strokes on the computer and raised his gaze to Ling. He held a hand out toward a red leather chair across from him and said, “Please, be seated.”

Ling stepped around to the front of the chair and settled into the soft leather, adjusting his long coat across his lap. Keeping his head tilted down, he cocked it to the side and peered out from beneath the brim of his fedora.

The corners of Gold’s mouth turned up and he shook his head as if an exasperated parent. “Must I ask you to remove that thing every time?”

The folds of skin around Ling’s eyes crinkled a bit, giving away the slightest sense of mirth. He paused a moment before lifting the hat from his head and placing it atop his knee. “Sorry, Mr. Gold. Trade habit.”

“No apologies. It’s just that I prefer to look my associates in the eye when conducting business. Trade habit.”

Ling raised his head and looked Gold full in the face, his gaze fixed. “I understand.”

“The reason I asked you here,” Gold began, already past the exchange, “was to see how things are progressing on our little project.”

Ling waited a moment before responding, careful not to appear too eager or rehearsed.

“Very well, sir. We have intercepted three shipments of cars and will obtain another tomorrow. One container of people has already gone for a swim and another is due to arrive in two days.”

“And the docks?”

A smile tugged at the corner of Ling’s mouth, the movement localized to one small spot as the rest of his face remained tight. “In shambles. Thus far we have taken out half a dozen men without a single shot being fired.”

“Has anybody gotten a good look at you?” Gold pressed, his body motionless as his eyes focused just above Ling’s head on the wall behind him.

“Nobody that lived more than a few seconds afterwards.”

“Nothing at all that can be traced back to us?”

Ling shook his head. “As of right now, no.”

Gold’s gaze flicked down from the wall to Ling. “As of right now?”

“Cameras have been installed on the docks. We will have to be a little more careful in the coming days.”

“Should that be a problem?” Gold asked, his left eyebrow arching upward.

“Not in the slightest.”

“Good,” Gold said, dropping his face back toward the computer monitor. He fell silent as he stared at it, his lips moving just slightly, no sound escaping them.

“Is that all, Mr. Gold?” Ling asked, placing his hands on the arms of the chair and beginning to rise.

Gold raised a finger toward the ceiling, holding it out in front of him, signaling for Ling to wait.

“I apologize for the delay. I am expecting some important information to arrive.”

Ling nodded, but said nothing. He slid his hands away from the arms of the chair and rested them back in his lap, letting his hands hang down between his knees.

“I have some guests coming in. Some very important, very influential guests,” Gold said, his attention still aimed at the monitor before him.

Ling nodded again, accepting the information without much thought. His employer was known to occasionally pass through the social scene, as was required for a man of his wealth, but he never entertained.

If he was receiving guests, it was for a very specific reason.

“These men also have a keen interest in our little project.”

And there it was.

“You will be receiving the men here?” Ling asked, wondering in silence what role the men would play, but knowing better than to voice the question aloud.

Gold continued working the mouse, his right index finger maneuvering it with practiced precision as a smirk tilted his face toward the ceiling. “No. I will be hosting them on Cape Cod.”

Ling’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“I purchased a villa just this morning for the occasion.”

The crown of Ling’s head rose in understanding, the information more in line with what he expected from his employer.

“They arrive in three days. I would like for you and your men to perform all necessary preparations.”

“Of course,” Ling said, again asking for no further details.

“The sooner and more inconspicuous the better.”

“It shall be done by this time tomorrow.”

A thin smile grew on Gold’s face. “Excellent.”

“Will our presence be needed during the meeting?”

Gold shook his head. “It was agreed by all that no security would be necessary. In fact, guests are encouraged to bring their families for the evening.”

Ling felt his brow come together as he stared expectantly at Gold.

“This is an actual business meeting, not a ruse to lure them here,” Gold said, sensing the question Ling’s look was meant to ask. “That being said, I do think it would be prudent for you to be on hand as a precautionary measure.”

“Personal valet?” Ling asked.

“I thought about that, but decided against it. A fit Asian man pushing around my wheelchair may arouse suspicion. Jasper will be my valet for the evening, per usual.”

Gold paused, a satisfied smile crossing his face as the information he was waiting for appeared before him. He stared a long moment at the screen, savoring what it told him, before shifting his attention back to Ling.

“Tell me, have you ever carried a serving tray before?”

Chapter Ten

 

 

Icy needles traversed the length of Thorn’s body, the last of his nervous system fighting to maintain itself. They jabbed at his skin in an uneven pattern, working at his body with unrelenting persistence.

Standing chest deep in a pool of frigid water, all color had long since drained from his skin. Beneath the surface his form shined with a ghostly pallor, a striking contrast to the dark blue bottom.

Across from him, red numbers on a digital thermometer told him the water was thirty-nine degrees, his entire form pulled in as tight as possible in an effort to perverse even the tiniest bit of body heat.

“How…much…longer?” Thorn muttered, pushing the words out one at a time, his mouth moving no more than a millimeter as he spoke.

Kneeling beside the thermometer was Ingram, a stopwatch in his hand, a whistle hanging down from his neck. “Just a couple more minutes, then you can go home and rest.”

Under different circumstances, scads of angry retorts would have flooded through Thorn’s mind, all with increasing animosity. As it was, he stood hunched forward at the waist, his body shivering uncontrollably, the cold sapping his ability to hold a thought on anything beyond the icy hell he was in.

“I know you’re miserable,” Ingram said, his body poised along the edge of the pool. “Hell, I feel miserable just watching you go through this.”

The words barely registered with Thorn. He didn’t bother to respond.

“Right now,” Ingram continued, “it’s the most important thing we can do. We need to know how much you can endure and we need you to know how much you can endure.”

Growing up, his father had regaled him with stories of military initiation weeks, rites of passage designed to weed out those unable to persevere. Six years before, he had gone through a pared back version himself, avoiding the worst of it when opting to go to college instead of SEAL training. What those events had taught Thorn was they had nothing to do with training, but were rather the world’s most intense stress test.

Apparently his new employer felt the need to call upon similar measures.

Since leaving Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Thorn had not ate or slept. His entire world had been reduced to a timeless environment, a training center with no clocks and no windows. Somewhere between bouts of being thrust into cold pools and hot saunas he had lost all semblance of the hour, focusing only on the next round of calisthenics before him.

At times, he worked under blinding overhead lights. During others, he operated in complete darkness.

If breaking him down was their goal, they had nearly succeeded. He was exhausted, he was overwhelmed, and he was hurting.

Across from him, Ingram held the stopwatch out, his lips moving as he silently counted off the last few seconds.

“Time!” he called, tossing a towel at Thorn’s head, the warm cotton almost burning his skin. “Very impressive. Might not mean much, but very few have made it as far as you just did.”

Thorn didn’t respond as he trudged to the side of the pool, his numb legs moving just inches at a time, his feet never leaving the tile floor. He came to a stop along the side and attempted to flail an arm over the edge before Ingram grabbed hold, wresting his stiff form out. A wave of ice and water came with him as he rolled onto the deck, his limbs extended in front of him, too rigid to move.

Tufts of gray fog drifted into the edge of Thorn’s vision as Ingram pulled a rolling chair over and placed it beside him. Putting his feet just above either of Thorn’s shoulders, he hooked his hands under his armpits, hefting him to a seated position.

“Come on, let’s get you into the showers before hypothermia sets in.”

Thorn wanted to tell him it was too late, but his jaw refused to work as he was lifted into the chair, his body forcing the bottom down several inches as he fell into it. The moment he was seated, Ingram rolled him on toward the locker room, tracks of water following them along the dry ground.

At no point did Thorn offer to aid or hinder the assistance in any way. Crossing his arms over his torso, he pulled himself into a ball, his teeth chattering, his entire body quivering. He remained that way as Ingram rolled him straight into the showers, placing him between two showerheads and turning them both on.

The first drops of water felt like fire against his skin, the spray washing over him. Still he remained motionless as it did so, staring at the wall, not yet even bothering to check the status of his fingers and toes.

After a few minutes, Ingram stepped forward and adjusted the dials, the new temperature again setting his skin ablaze.

There was no way for Thorn to know how long he spent in the showers, though his best guess was somewhere north of an hour. It took three temperature adjustments from Ingram before he regained feeling enough to begin doing it himself, remaining seated in the chair and raising it incrementally to a degree or two below scalding.

Not until his skin glowed bright pink did he begin to move his extremities, his body protesting as blood forced its way back into his capillaries.

Ingram was waiting for him in the locker room as he emerged, tossing him a towel as Thorn stood shivering without the benefit of the hot water, droplets dotting the floor around him.

“Take as much time as you need. Your clothes are clean and a car is waiting outside to take you home as soon as you’re ready. Food will be there when you arrive.”

“Where are you headed?” Thorn asked, a scowl on his face, his voice relaying the same.

“South, to HQ. I need to get my end of things set up before our first assignment.”

Thorn nodded. “Does this mean I passed?”

Ingram paused and considered the question before simply saying, “I’ll see you soon,” and leaving without another word.

Ten minutes later, an older man with short gray hair nodded as Thorn fell into the backseat and the car pulled away. The sky overhead indicated night was coming, by Thorn’s best guess two days having passed since he’d last been outside. He watched with detachment as they navigated the thin evening traffic, winding through residential neighborhoods before coming to a stop.

Shifting his focus to the house in front of them, Thorn’s eyebrows pushed together in confusion. “Where are we?”

“Your new home,” the driver answered, his tone relaying extreme boredom. “Your dog and your possessions are waiting for you.”

A flash of concern passed through him at the thought of Abby inside alone. Ingram had told him she would be taken care of when they first departed the cemetery, though no mention of her had been made since.

“Your keys,” the driver said, handing them over the front seat, prompting Thorn from his thoughts, urging him to exit the car. Offering only a grunt in response, Thorn accepted them and climbed out, the car pulling away the moment his feet touched the front lawn.

Before him stood a two-story structure built entirely from brick. A half dozen oversized windows were spread across the front façade, light spilling out, casting long shadows across the ground. In a day or two Thorn would have reams of questions to ask his new boss, but for the time being all he could think of was the deep-set weariness gripping him.

The scene inside was much the same as out, the space equipped with hardwood floors and furniture pieces of a simple design. Swinging the door shut behind him, he was greeted by the sound of toenails, Abby jogging toward him, body twisting with delight. Side by side they surveyed the downstairs together, finding a small bedroom, an office, and a bathroom on one side of the house offset by an expansive living room and kitchen on the other.

A row of wooden stairs jutted out from the wall opposite the living room and he ascended to find the entire floor to be a master suite, outfitted with an oversized bed and a sweeping bathroom.

Seeing the bed before him, the profound exhaustion within again pawed at Thorn. “Five minutes,” he mumbled, forcing himself back down the stairs and into the kitchen, finding his dinner waiting for him on the stove. He ate standing at the kitchen counter, taking in food in great bites, washing it down with Gatorade from the fridge.

True to his word, five minutes later he was back upstairs, face down on the bed, Abby curled up tight against his hip.

Chapter Eleven

 

 

“Are you sure you want to take this meeting, sir?” Eric Olson asked without preamble as he strode through the double doors and into the governor’s office. He carried a sheaf of papers against his chest and his tie was loosened beneath his collar.

Massachusetts Governor Brian Milton looked up from the document he was reading, making no effort to hide his annoyance at being interrupted. “What?”

“Are you sure you want to do this, sir?” Olson asked, his body bent forward at the waist.

“Do what?” Milton pressed, his eyes narrowing.

“Meet with this guy. This Paul Hardy.”

Milton leaned back in his chair, keeping his face neutral, staring up at Olson. “Why wouldn’t I?”

“Why would you?? You were elected to this position by being no-nonsense against crime. If it got out that you’re consorting with his type, think of the damage it could do.”

Milton allowed his gaze to pass from impassive to malevolent to condescending.

“Paul Hardy and I have been friends since I was a lowly state representative from the South Shore,” Milton said, his tone reflecting the look on his face. “He has never been linked to organized crime in any way, his dealings have been searched and researched, and he’s always come out clean.”

As Milton spoke, Olson seemed to wilt before him. Sensing his target’s weakness, he leaned forward in his chair, ready to drive home his point.

“Paul Hardy is a hell of a businessman that has done a great deal for this community, this state, and this office. If he requests fifteen minutes of my time I’m going to give it to him, regardless what some boy two months out of Dartmouth seems to think.”

The verbal castration complete, Milton dismissed Olson with the flick of his hand, leaning back in his chair and taking the document up from the desk.

“And another thing,” he called, Olson slowing without turning to look back at him. “It’s not your place to question who I meet with, understand?”

“Yes, sir,” Olson mumbled, his voice barely audible. He paused long enough to make sure Milton was done before opening the door to exit, coming face-to-face with Hardy on the other side. At the sight of him, his jaw dropped open and color bled from his face, his mouth working up and down, trying to place the right words. “Um, Governor Milton, will see you now.”

He kept his gaze turned down and kept the stack of papers clutched tight against his chest, turning his body to the side and standing rigid in the doorway.

Hardy ignored Olson entirely as he stepped past him into the office. A large grin grew across his face as he kicked the door shut behind him and settled into the leather chair opposite the governor’s desk.

“Damn fine performance,” he said in greeting, the smile still in place as he crossed his legs and settled back in the chair.

Milton remained seated, a matching grin on his own features. “God, that never gets old.”

“And the good thing for guys like us is, the years may pass but there’s always going to be little shits like him that need put in their place.”

“Best part is he’s the son of an old acquaintance I never really cared for. Now I get to bawl the kid out and accumulate favors at the same time. Almost isn’t fair.”

Hardy gave a deep booming laugh, coupling it with a wistful shake of his head. “No, it really isn’t.”

Milton let the moment linger before shaking the smile from his face. “So, what can I do for you, Paul?”

Lacing his fingers atop his knee, Hardy began, “I think we both know that some of my business dealings are not with what would be called the cream of the social crop.”

Milton nodded in understanding. He had long since operated under that assumption, having heard as much from many trusted sources. As he’d just told Olson though, Hardy had always supported him, and he had therefore tried to do the same.

Still, it was an interesting place for the conversation to begin.

“That being said, allow me to approach this from another angle,” Hardy said. “As I’m sure you well know, a great deal of my business is derived from the Dorchester docks.”

“You’re a shipping mogul, it makes sense.”

“Of course,” Hardy said, raising his eyebrows in agreement, “though what you may not know is that I’ve been able to gain such unfettered access to those docks by working with the people controlling them.”

Milton pursed his lips and mulled the info, nodding. “Makes sense. They’re too proud to let you freely operate in their backyard and you’re too shrewd to even try.”

“Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say this is quite a lucrative arrangement for all parties involved.”

Milton had a pretty good idea who was involved, but decided not to ask. If his assumption was right, such an arrangement controlled a decent percentage of the city and, in turn, the state.

At the moment, none of active players were enemies, which was a good thing for everybody, him as governor included.

“For several years now we have enjoyed healthy interaction and even healthier bottom lines,” Hardy continued, pausing for Milton’s reaction.

“And something is now threatening both?” Milton prompted.

“Yes and no,” Hardy said, giving a non-committal shake of his head. “The bottom lines for all have been hit, though for the moment our pact is intact. Right now no one is pointing any fingers. Needless to say though, it would benefit everyone if this was solved sooner rather than later.”

Milton nodded, processing the information he had been given. The sudden dump of it was quite unusual compared to his previous dealings with Hardy, though from the sound of things the situation was a bit unique, even for him.

“I’m sure you realize that right now I have a great many questions that out of respect I am refraining from asking?”

“It is realized and appreciated,” Hardy replied.

“So then let me ask just one. How do I, or rather this office, fit in?”

Hardy weighed the question for a moment. “It is my understanding that men in your position have people, investigators, things of that nature, at your disposal.”

Unsure if it was a statement or a question, the words caught Milton by surprise. “With all due respect, I would think the same of men in your position.”

Hardy smirked, his upper body rocking back an inch. “You assume correctly, though such people come with strings, strings that could ultimately connect them back to me.”

For the first time some clarity began to settle in for Milton. He was here being asked a favor from one of the more powerful people in the state, a man with untold influence and extremely deep pockets.

Hardy sat in silence, waiting for Milton, not bothering to further verbalize his request.

As far as Milton could tell, there was little downside to offering assistance. While some enterprising reporter might catch wind of the meeting and decide to let his imagination run wild, the hit in the press at this point in his term would be negligible.

On the flip side, owning a marker from Paul Hardy could be a game changer should he ever need it in the future.

Holding his gaze on the wall above his guest, Milton went through the charade of debating the request a moment before shifting his attention down to his desk. Sliding open the top drawer, he pulled a gold key from it before rotating his chair in a half-circle.

Leaning down to the bottom of the credenza behind him, he inserted the key, a small click sounding out as the door opened. Extracting an aging Rolodex from within, he flipped through the dense stack of contacts until he found what he was looking for and removed it.

A card he prayed he never needed to use himself.

Replacing the Rolodex, Milton spun back to face forward and extended the card across the desk, holding it between his index and middle fingers. Reaching forward, Hardy accepted it as Milton returned the key to his desk drawer.

“The Company,” Hardy read aloud. “Plain white business card, one phone number, no address.”

He fell silent, letting his raised eyebrows ask the question he was thinking for him.

“Don’t let the card fool you,” Milton replied, raising his right ankle to rest on his left knee. “They have ample resources, they just prefer to keep a low profile. One of those ‘You have to be brought in by somebody in the know’ type of things.”

“And you’re in the know?” Hardy asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Last term, outgoing Governor Travalli used them. It was official business, so the reference stayed with the office, not him personally.”

“Will I be able to use your name if they ask how I came to have their number?”

Milton nodded in the affirmative without saying as much. “Also, the name on that card is no longer with them. The man you’re looking for now is Bryce Stepoli, handles all requests personally.”

Accepting the information, Hardy examined the card one last time before tapping it against the opposite palm. In one quick movement he stood, thrusting a hand across the desk.

“Thank you, I appreciate it.”

Milton stood and returned the handshake. “Good luck. I hope they can help.”

Chapter Twelve

 

 

Most years the island of Cuba enjoyed June temperatures that hovered somewhere in the mid-eighties. Warm and sunny, offset by the persistent blowing of an ocean breeze, it allowed for an active lifestyle without ever becoming oppressive.

This was not most years.

A shift in the weather flow of the North Atlantic Current had pushed the usual summer winds further out to sea, the sun beating straight down, heat reflecting off the concrete pad that was Havana. Foot traffic thinned to the point of non-existence, people seeking refuge from the heat, opting to wait until cover of darkness before performing their chores.

Nio wasn’t fortunate enough to have that choice. Instead, he was trapped inside a shipping container on a wait that was stretching well into its second day.

Despite the fact that he had moved little in all that time, his energy reserves were fast becoming sapped. The meager food rations offered did little to replenish him, the water no match for the perspiration pouring from his skin.

More than once a fellow passenger fell unconscious from heat stroke and was carried away, never to be seen again.

Wedged tight against one another, the travelers sat in the darkness, the smell of sweat and urine permeating the air. After awhile the combined stench became too much and people began to vomit, the sound of their retching reverberating throughout, the scent of it soon following.

Positioned in the rear corner, Nio kept his back pressed into the perpendicular walls, his knees raised in front of him, guarding as much personal space as possible. He could tell from the cooling metal against his shoulder blades that night had fallen, though beyond that it was impossible to know the time of day.

Seated in the darkness, he did his best to ignore the assault on his senses as he sat deep in thought, preserving the remnants of his energy, trying to decipher what might have happened to his father.

There was no doubt that Jorge Garcia would be considered middle-aged, but he was still quite a ways from being deemed elderly. His dark hair was only beginning to show signs of graying and he still possessed much of the muscle mass he had as a younger man.

While the conditions Nio was now being subjected to were horrible, it was difficult to imagine them being his father’s undoing.

Lost in his thoughts, Nio barely noticed the first sounds of metal scraping against metal. Not until the opposite end of the container opened wide, the entire side extending outward, did he draw himself into the moment, his pupils constricting as flood lights poured into the space.

A murmur of fearful comments passed through the crowd as two fluorescent spotlights blazed forward, illuminating everything in harsh light, bodies bright with perspiration shining beneath them.

A moment later, the bulk of the light was blotted out by a trio of silhouettes, their uniforms and weapons framed against the bright glare. Nio watched as they stood three across, guns trained at the ready, their bodies blocking the opening and throwing long shadows over those inside.

Seeming to relish their position, they stood in silence, watching the faces of the people wedged inside, before beginning to speak. In short, sharp commands they told everyone to move fast, stay quiet, and follow them outside.

Without further instructions of any kind they shifted their weapons, holding them by the barrel with one hand while using the other to begin grabbing passengers and jerking them forward into the night. Many of the people within arm’s reach were older, their strength fading from the day spent in the makeshift sauna. As the brusque handling hurtled them forward they were unable to control themselves, sprawling across the ground, the passengers behind them stepping right over their fallen bodies as they moved forward.

From his perch in the far back Nio was one of the last to exit, affording him a few seconds to stand and work some of the feeling back into his body before beginning his journey into the night. Upon departing the container he attempted to offer a hand to those that had fallen on the front end of the procession, realizing upon first sight that they were already gone, their frail bodies trampled by the masses. Bloody footprints extended away from their battered corpses, their unseeing eyes staring into the distance.

Free from the container for the first time in almost two days, the night air passed over his skin in a cool rush. It met the perspiration on his skin and dropped his body temperature within seconds, a shiver running down his back as he marched forward.

The path before him was outlined clearly, flanked by loose rows of armed guards on either side. Bearded and reeking of body odor, they stood with weapons in hand, waiting for somebody to dare cast a glance in their direction.

With his gaze aimed downward Nio shuffled forward, his shoulders hunched, bracing for an attack that never came.

Five minutes after leaving the holding container Nio negotiated his way along a narrow wooden gangplank, walking across the open deck of a barge and into an exact replica of the storage space he had just left. Made of corrugated metal and painted mud brown, it had no identifying marks, matching every other container stretched the length of the ship in both directions.

The last thought that passed through his mind as the door was closed behind him was to wonder how many others carried the same cargo as the one he was now in.

Chapter Thirteen

 

 

The black marble table was much larger than the last time Ingram was there, but otherwise the room was exactly the same. The men that comprised the board sat in a single file along the far end, spaced equidistant apart and branching from one side of the room to the other. Each wore some variation of the same uniform, dark suits with white shirts and power ties of assorted designs.

The only difference Ingram noticed at all was the fact that the men seemed to be wearing a bit more strain, even though they had been seated for just a couple of minutes.

The summons had seemed a bit unusual to Ingram, arriving just moments after his return to the capitol. A voicemail was waiting on his phone as soon as he stepped off the plane, a sharp automated whippoorwill call letting him know it was waiting.

The directive had been simple enough, requesting that he come in person to headquarters that evening for a meeting. He was told it would be brief and that business attire would not be necessary, though he knew better than to fully believe either.

Now seated before the board, he still had no idea what purpose his being there was meant to serve. Just days into their official employment, both he and Thorn were both still getting their feet under them. They each had extensive training yet to complete, a new base of operations and communication pattern to establish.

Given that, the only thing he could figure was that the board had changed their minds, opting to cut things short before anybody became too vested. The thought brought a roiling sickness to his stomach as he sat and stared at the men settling in before him, heightening as he pondered having to break such a decision to Thorn.

Ignored by the others in the room, Ingram was left alone with his thoughts, his suit jacket becoming hotter with each passing moment. He could feel sweat beginning to line his back, his dress shirt sticking to it each time he moved even a fraction of an inch.

His wait ended at eight o’clock sharp, cut off by Stepoli raising his right hand, waiting as the room fell into silence. Once he had the complete attention of all present he cleared his throat, a small guttural sound in the quiet room, before beginning.

“Thank you for being here. We realize the request came rather suddenly, but I assure you it is with good reason.”

Ingram dipped his head forward just a fraction of an inch, enough to acknowledge the comment without saying anything.

“As I’m sure you are aware,” Stepoli continued, “the people that contract with us are assured of the utmost privacy, something that is best preserved by meeting in person whenever possible.”

A hint of confusion passed over Ingram’s face as he stared back at them. While he and his charge were by no means ready to begin, it sounded as if a case was being assigned to them.

Before he could voice a question or await further explanation, the sound of the wooden double doors opening behind him could be heard. Through them passed the clear din of high-heeled shoes walking along marble floors, the steps rhythmic and even.

Without turning around, Ingram waited as the steps grew closer, culminating in a raven-haired secretary appearing by his side, a single folder in hand. She passed it over to him without comment and took three steps back, waiting with her hands clasped before her.

Turning to face front, Ingram fought to keep his face neutral, placing the file down on the table.

“Please,” Stepoli said, extending a hand out before him, motioning for Ingram to open it and take a look inside.

Very thin, the unmarked blue folder held but a single piece of paper. It was attached to the folder by a pair of folding metal clips, a generic letterhead spanning the top.

His heartbeat increasing again, Ingram glanced up at the board before skimming over the page.

 

To Whom It May Concern:

 

On June 9th, our company was contacted about possible employment. The contact originates in Boston, Massachusetts and was referred to us by a reliable client. The referral has been cleared from any suspicion of foul play.

 

The case presented would be conducted in the greater Boston area. It would involve working the shipping and receiving docks of Dorchester Harbor and hinge on negotiating a place within the cartels found there. As with most of our jobs, there is a high level of danger attached.

 

All relevant details will be rendered once acceptance is assured. At that time, a full briefing and access to all necessary resources will be made.

 

There was no closing of any kind, just three short paragraphs of text. Ingram scanned it twice before closing the folder and sliding it across the table as the secretary stepped forward and took it back up. She exited without comment, her shoes echoing through the room before being swallowed by the banging shut of the heavy wooden door behind her.

Leaning forward, Ingram laced his fingers atop the table, staring back intently at the men across from him. Each one met his gaze in full, their expressions ranging from impassive to forceful.

Once the secretary was gone, Stepoli began anew.

“We know you and Byrd are both just days into the company, but this came about rather suddenly. It is bad for business for us to have operatives sitting idle, but it does call for the occasional moment such as this.”

Ingram waited a long moment for more explanation and when none was offered prompted, “A moment such as this?”

“They need somebody, and they need them now,” Stepoli said, shoving the words out without pause. It was apparent he was the only one to do any of the talking, the other men looking between him and Ingram like a crowd watching a tennis match.

Just hours before, Ingram had been sitting on the plane, thinking of how he wanted to structure Thorn’s training. Unlike many of the recruits that were brought in, he had the benefit of military training behind him.

Contrary to them, that meant his skills were of a markedly physical nature.

Even more than that, the last time Ingram had seen Thorn he was in no state to be starting a first assignment.

Across from him Stepoli waited, seemingly assessing Ingram, watching for a response. When none came, he pulled a matching folder over in front of himself, this one much thicker than the one Ingram had been given. He flipped it open and removed the top page, holding it at arm’s length and reading aloud.

“Preliminary research indicates that this is a case calling for a young male with a maximum age of thirty-seven years old. No additional language proficiencies are needed, nor are any technological skills. Assignee will, however, need to be competent in physical combat and the handling of a firearm.”

There he stopped and looked up, pausing for emphasis. Running the list in his mind, it was obvious Thorn fit the bill thus far, though that did little to quell the apprehension within Ingram.

“Also, the assignee must be a person of Irish heritage, or have the ability to assimilate therein.”

Stepoli paused again, closing the file before him. He shoved it a few inches away and folded his hands, staring back at Ingram.

“Obviously, based on the early assessment, you can see why we had your team in mind.”

Unsure if it was a question or a statement, Ingram nodded his head, remaining silent.

“After discussing matters, the board determined that Mr. Byrd’s skill set, as one-sided though it may be at the moment, was very well suited for this kind of assignment.”

Again Ingram nodded, already thinking what Stepoli had said. Apparently the other aspects of Thorn’s skill set would have to be shored up in the future.

“Due to the extremely fast nature of this request coming in, and the fact that you two have not had time to properly assimilate yourselves,” Stepoli continued, “this one time you have the right of refusal.”

The poignancy of the statement wasn’t lost on Ingram, who fought back a smirk at the wording of it. In the future, they would do what they were told when they were told, but for the time being they could at least pretend to have some say in the matter.

Ingram waited a moment to see if Stepoli was done before pressing his lips together and scanning the length of the board. While he and Thorn were just getting started – and they had had very little contact over the preceding years – this case seemed to be the best possible place for them to start. It was housed on familiar ground, using skills that should come naturally to Thorn.

All six men sat in silence as Ingram ran the paces in his mind, only Birkwood giving any sort of outward response, a small sneer tugging at the corner of his mouth.

Defiance rising within him, Ingram met the look, matching it with an unmistakable glare.

“Neither one of us do well with down time,” Ingram replied. “This is as good a place to start as any.”

Chapter Fourteen

 

 

Sam King looked like a man who hadn’t slept in days. He held the falsified application just inches away from his face and scrutinized it, his eyes red and bloodshot, looking as if he was struggling to focus, before dropping it down on his desk. He ran a hand over his face, loose skin tugging from his cheek, and stared at Thorn across from him.

“Robert Myers,” he said, his voice belying exhaustion, “what brings you down here?”

Settled into the chair on the opposite side of the desk, Thorn stared directly back, unflinching at the new moniker he’d been given.

“New in town, was told you might have some work available, sir.”

King regarded Thorn for another moment before flitting his gaze back to the application. “Says here you were a long-time resident of upstate New York.”

A long nod dipped the top of Thorn’s head. “Yes, sir. My father owned a small farm south of Syracuse and we worked it together. When he passed, I sold it and cleared out.”

Thorn looked King in the eye as he spoke, expelling the fabricated history as if it were the gospel truth. He and Ingram had refined and rehearsed it so many times the day before it came out almost as naturally as his real background.

“Sorry to hear about your father,” King said, his tone detached as he reached out and turned the first page of the application over, skimming through it.

“Thank you, sir.”

“Says here you went to college for a few years,” King said, glancing up to Thorn. “Decided it wasn’t for you?”

“Couldn’t afford it. The farm was already in the red when Pop took sick.” The remainder of the story was left intentionally vague, allowing King to draw his own inferences, to fill in the blanks for himself.

A moment passed as King seemed to be doing just that, weighing the information. “So this would be a temporary gig for you?”

“Not at all,” Thorn said, twisting his head at the neck. “Eventually I would like to finish my degree, but I have no immediate time frame.”

King nodded again and gave the application a final once-over. “That’s a hell of a lot more than most of the guys commit to. You have a preference for days or nights?”

Deep down, Thorn knew he needed the night shift to provide him with the flexibility to actually accomplish what he was there for. At the same time, he couldn’t be that overt, needing King to get there on his own so as to not arouse suspicion.

“I’m well aware of my spot in the pecking order,” Thorn said. “I’m okay with graveyard until I earn my stripes.”

A small smile pulled at the right side of King’s mouth. “When can you start?”

“When can I start, sir?” Thorn returned.

“Tonight at eight work?”

Chapter Fifteen

 

 

It didn’t take Nio long to discover the only thing worse than sitting immobile in a container parked in Cuba was sitting in one bobbing with every whim of the Atlantic Ocean.

For the better part of a day the transport barge worked its way up the eastern seaboard, the facets of the metal container groaning with each roll of the ocean. Halfway through, seasickness began to grip the people inside, reducing them to retching on the floor as those nearby tried to ignore it.

Among them was Nio, breathing through his mouth as much as possible, trying to keep the scent out of his nostrils, fighting the rise of bile in the back of his throat.

The container was the same exact dimensions as the previous one, though somehow the accommodations were even tighter. Folded up tight, each passenger was able to find just enough floor space to sit, many fighting for the outer walls, pressing their backs against them and attempting to find some bit of sleep.

Outside, matching containers were stacked above and to either side, shielding most direct sunlight, keeping the metal of the side walls somewhat cool. Being the last one on board afforded Nio another corner perch, his shoulders pressed into the perpendicular walls, the top of his head resting back into the crook they formed.

Seated in that position, Nio was able to put his body on auto-pilot, his eyes glazing over. Ignoring the stench around him and the perpetual groaning of the ship and its cargo, he allowed his mind to drift, his body drawing back as much strength as it could.

As hours passed by, the perpetual rolling of the ship began to take a toll. Many inside the container were unable to resist the pitch of the sea any longer, motion sickness setting in. Coupled with the cumulative odor of urine and feces, the air became rancid, heavy vomiting ensuing.

By the time the ambient glow peeking through the cracks of the door began to fade, the floor was covered with a thin layer of viscous fluid. Nio could feel it splashing against the side of his shoes with each roll of the ship, ebbing and flowing in time with the waves outside.

For a brief spell he could sense people making an attempt to avoid it, their objections echoing through the space, bodies pressing against each other. Soon the discord faded away though, the passengers resigning themselves to the night ahead.

Rising to his feet, Nio kept his body positioned in the corner, locking his knees to brace himself upright. He stood with his eyes still closed and lifted his face toward the ceiling, praying the journey would end.

Just as the first pangs of seasickness gnawed at his stomach and dry heaves began to rack his body, the ship slowed to a crawl. The container ceased to sway, the sound of men shouting outside replacing the incessant groaning of the metal box.

Spurred on by the sounds, a flicker of life passed through the container, a low murmur of recognition setting in. Pulling himself awake, Nio glanced around, watching as others did the same, their eyes bloodshot, their clothes stained with various bodily fluids.

More people worked their way to their feet, letting out loud moans, their bodies protesting as they fought for purchase on the slick floor. They waited in silence as the ship came to a complete stop, the omnipresent rumble of the last twelve hours mercifully falling silent.

While the loading on the front end a few days before had been an easy affair, Nio couldn’t help but wonder how the unloading would take place. Nobody in harbor customs seemed too concerned with whatever was leaving the country, though it bore to reason that they would be a bit more concerned about a load of refugees attempting to enter it.

Judging by the people around him, he was the junior man by at least a decade, the only one looking like he might be capable of running for it if he needed to. His wallet and identification were both in his back pocket, though that wouldn’t necessarily help him if a customs agent demanded to know why he was attempting to reenter the country through such nefarious means.

As he stood and tried to piece together what might occur in the coming hour, the sound of ramps being attached to the side of the boat rang out. Heavy slaps of metal against metal reverberated through the space, many inside covering their ears, their faces twisted up in agony.

Pushing aside any thoughts, any trepidations, anything that might block his conscious mind, Nio remained still, listening as forklifts began passing over the ramps, the whine of their engines rising and falling. A few moments later the hydraulic pulleys of an overhead crane could be heard joining them, containers scraping against one another as they were hefted into the air and moved ashore.

A renewed wave of energy crept up in the darkness, encircling the passengers as the crane worked outside. It swelled into a palpable buzz, gripping the people inside, every last one rising to their feet, fighting for the few narrow strips of light that were visible.

It took almost an hour for the crane to work its way to their container, many inside speaking in hushed whispers as footfalls could be heard echoing against the roof above.

After what seemed an eternity to the eager crowd inside, the crane beeped three times and wrenched the container from the barge. The sensation of uneven flight settled in as it swung through the air, tossing it from side to side, those inside finding no traction against the vomit-coated floor.

Throughout, Nio remained in his corner, wedged tight between the perpendicular walls. In the muted darkness he could hear the muffled sounds of people falling about and occasionally feel their fingers tugging at him in an attempt to steady themselves, all careful to remain as quiet as possible.

The container swung free for almost ten full minutes, ending with a heavy jolt as it was deposited on the dock. There it stayed as the workers outside unlatched the levers from the crane, already moving on to their next target.

Chapter Sixteen

 

 

“Do we have to walk around with these cannons strapped to our hip like this?” Thorn asked as he and his new partner, Cyrus Cooper, stepped from the guard station into the warm night air.

The cannon he referred to was an aging .44 Magnum in a cracked leather holster that was assigned to him just hours before with the instruction to put it on and never walk about the docks without it. Large and unwieldy, it tugged at the belt used to hold it in place, much different than the smaller side arms he’d carried in the service.

“I told you, son, when we’re in the guardhouse it can come off. When we’re making the rounds, it has to be on,” Cyrus responded, drawing out the vowel sounds and rounding off the R’s in an accent that evoked the Boston stereotype.

“I’m not complaining about following the rules, I’m really asking the question,” Thorn clarified. “Are they necessary? Seems pretty quiet around here.”

Cyrus smirked, his upper body rocking up an inch. “That’s what I used to think, too. Course, that was four friends and a visit from big brother ago.”

As they walked, he flicked his gaze to a camera mounted to the top of a nearby light pole and nodded toward it. “If they want me to wear it like some Wild West cowboy, then yee-haw, I guess.”

Thorn nodded a silent agreement, his gaze scouring the camera on high. “And who’s doing the watching?”

“Damn fine question,” Cyrus said with a shrug. “One day I came in and my buddy Mikey was working. The next I came in, he was gone and the cameras were here.”

“Huh,” Thorn said, filing away the information, making mental notes to determine where the videos were stored and how he could access them.

“Yeah,” Cyrus agreed, drawing his clipboard up in front of him. “I’ve got two kids at home to feed. I don’t ask questions.”

As partners went, Cyrus was on the high end of what Thorn had been expecting. While he had the distinct Boston drawl and the grizzled red hair and beard of an Irishman, his demeanor seemed more school teacher than dockworker. He had an affable, easy going manner that belied a man with young children and had been more than willing to show Thorn around the grounds, explaining in excruciating detail how things worked each day.

A single roadway extended the length of the docks, beginning with their guardhouse and ending a half mile away with a cluster of outbuildings that housed the business affairs. In the distance Thorn could see the one he had been interviewed in that afternoon, the lights within blacked out for the night.

Extending from the roadway like fingers from a palm was a series of piers, each one as wide as a three lane road. On the outer edge of each were metal shipping containers and wooden pallets of various size and cargo, all sitting quiet in the darkening night air, ready to be moved about first thing in the morning.

Side by side Thorn and Cyrus walked to the end of each pier, checking over the freight, making sure everything was in order. Every so often Thorn made a point to ask some inane question, almost always already knowing the answer. As Cyrus in turn prattled on about this or that, Thorn checked over each of the cameras, never once finding a light on or a cord attached to indicate they were active.

They finished their third trip of the night at twenty minutes after eleven and began their journey back toward the guard station. After the non-existent Spring the warm night air was a welcome respite, small talk passing between them. Each remained on semi-alert as they went, watching for anything unusual, discussing the Red Sox pitching rotation as they rounded back onto the main roadway.

Within three steps both fell silent, each one staring at what lay before them.

Four hundred yards away, standing as a perfect silhouette beneath the security light of the guardhouse, was a single figure.

“You see that?” Thorn whispered, his pace rising.

Already he could feel the breath tighten in his chest and tiny beads of sweat form along his lip and lower back. Years of training had taught his body to react with adrenaline, not apprehension.

On pure muscle memory his hand lowered itself to his hip, fingertips grazing over the cracked leather of his holster.

“Yup,” Cyrus responded, his tone clipped and sharp. His breathing became loud as he increased his pace to keep up with Thorn, needing five steps to the taller man’s three.

In silence, the gap between them and their intruder closed to one hundred yards, pace quickening another half step. Together they approached through the darkness, both ready to draw their weapon if need be, when the silhouette stepped forward and threw an arm in the air, waving it from side to side.

“Hey there!” a syrupy voice cooed out at them, both men slowing their pace.

The voice was not what either had expected, a far cry from the mysterious man in black they had heard so much about.

This wasn’t a man at all, but a woman. A young one at that.

“The hell?” Thorn hissed, turning his head sideways so the low-pitched question was just audible between them. He made no effort to hide the confusion on his face, his right eye bunched up so tight it was almost closed.

“First time I ever seen her,” Cyrus said, his lips never moving as he kept his gaze straight ahead, his breathing still heavy.

Feeling his heartbeat slow just a tick, Thorn again grazed the tip of his holster. Two years of slogging through places that weren’t even on maps had taught him to never assume anything on outward appearances, knowing the girl could be nothing more than a decoy, a plant to get their guard down.

Slowing his pace, Thorn passed his gaze over the ground around them, peering into the shadows, looking for signs of anybody lurking. He watched for any stray bits of light refracting off of metal, for any show of movement in the night.

Across from them, the young woman stepped away from the guardhouse, stopping in the middle of the cone cast downward from the security light above. There she waited, framed in the center of it, her body in plain view.

At first glance she had long, dark hair that hung in tight ringlets and framed a face with large mellow eyes and well-shaped lips. Her frame was a bit on the thin side, adorned with a bright colored skirt that swung from her hips and a yellow shirt that sat low off both shoulders.

She stood with one hand resting on her hip and the other fingering her hair, an expectant look on her face. “I said, hey there,” she purred, her voice equal parts sultry and naivety.

“Um, miss, I’m not sure what you may have heard, but this isn’t the place for that sort of thing,” Cyrus said, eschewing any sort of formal greeting. His cheeks were tinged red and his gaze darted about as he addressed her, embarrassment plain.

A cloud of confusion passed over the girl’s face. “What sort of thing?”

Cyrus wagged a finger at her, again refraining from looking directly at her. “You know, that sort of thing.”

The girl glanced down, the same look in place on her face, before raising her gaze back to Cyrus as realization set in. “Wait, you think I’m…”

She raised a hand to her mouth and clamped it over the bottom of her face, colored fingernails showing up against her skin, muted chuckles causing her body to quiver.

Cyrus’ face went an even deeper shade of crimson. “I’m so sorry, I just, uh, well, I…”

The girl pulled her hand down from her mouth and laughed, her entire body shaking with heavy guffaws as she leaned forward and rested a hand on her knee. She stayed that way for several seconds, her voice carrying out over the deserted docks.

For their part, Thorn and Cyrus both stood and watched, Thorn remaining silent while Cyrus fidgeted with discomfort.

“No need for apologies,” the girl said, pushing herself to full height and drawing in a deep breath. “Honey, that’s the best laugh I’ve had in a long time. You wait until the girls back home hear about this!”

She laughed as Cyrus started to breathe again, the bright color receding from his cheeks. He gave a quick glance to Thorn, who responded with a shrug of uncertainty, his gaze fixed on the girl.

“My name is Vanessa,” she said, stepping forward and thrusting her hand out.

“Cyrus,” Cyrus said, returning the gesture.

“Robert,” Thorn mumbled, taking her hand, the grip stronger than he expected.

A moment of silence passed after the introductions.

“So, uh, Vanessa, what brings you down here?” Cyrus inquired, trying his best to steer the conversation and put his gaffe behind them. “This isn’t the place for a lady.”

The left side of her face curled upward at the smile, the look somewhere between coy and sly. “So now I’m a lady, huh?” She held the pose a moment before swatting at Cyrus, her hand connecting with the meat of his arm. “The reason I came down here is I was hoping to watch the ships for a while.”

Thorn and Cyrus exchanged glances, uncertainty on both their faces.

“Watch the ships for a while?” Thorn asked.

“Yeah, you know, the ships. I’m here visiting and was told they are just the prettiest things to see all lit up at night.”

Thorn’s faced contorted with confusion. Cyrus matched the expression and said, “Ma’am, I think you have this confused with the marina. This is a working dock, there won’t be a ship enter here for another ten hours.”

“And there’s absolutely nothing pretty about a barge,” Thorn added.

A light passed behind her eyes as she scanned Thorn, fleeing just as quickly as she leveled her gaze back on Cyrus. “Well, now, don’t I feel silly?”

In that brief instant Thorn recognized something he had seen a hundred times over in a different life. For the first few minutes her performance had been over-the-top, but having just enough sincerity to give her the benefit of the doubt. After that though, her act became too transparent to buy any longer. She was putting on a show, trying to get their guard down, hoping to draw them away.

The only question remaining was why.

“Not a problem,” Cyrus replied, “happens all the time.”

“It does?” Vanessa asked, a bit of hope in her voice.

“It does?” Thorn echoed, his own belying disbelief.

“Sure does,” Cyrus lied, casting a sideways glance to his co-worker as the color resurfaced on his cheeks.

“You know, I’ve never been to a working dock before. Since I’m already here and it’s such a nice night, you think you could give me a tour?”

The feeling of mistrust rose stronger within Thorn, his gaze hardening. He stared across at her, no more than a handful of years younger than him, wanting her to know just from his gaze that he saw through her.

“I don’t know about that,” he said. “Like Cyrus said, this is really no place for a lady.”

The vehemence on his voice hung in the air as she stared back at him, the skin around her eyes tightening. “Really? Not even one exception?”

Thorn opened his mouth to respond in the negative, but was cut off by his partner beside him. Stepping into the center of the trio, he blocked the sightline between Thorn and Vanessa, the red hair on the back his head facing Thorn.

“A short one,” he said, his voice conceding defeat as he held a hand out toward Vanessa before turning back. “Robert, stay here. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”

Biting back a retort, Thorn nodded and ducked into the guardhouse. He removed the .44 from his hip and laid it atop the table, his gaze following Cyrus and Vanessa as they moved away down the pier. The moment they were gone from sight he took the gun back up, fastening it to his hip and disappearing into the night.

There was no way of knowing exactly what the girl was up to, but the odds were it wasn’t good. Her performance was too forced, her insistence on luring them away too strong, just to ignore.

Staying along the water’s edge, Thorn avoided as much of the overhead light as he could, the straw-colored glow cast across the asphalt. His right hand pressed to his hip, he continued along in near silence, the sound of Vanessa’s laugh drifting through the air, the smell of the sea in his nose.

Halfway down the main roadway, the distinct sound of metal touching metal sounded out behind him. The hairs along the nape of his neck stood on end as he twisted back toward it, drawing his weapon as he dropped to a knee. There he remained, waiting, pulling in slow breaths.

A moment later a second sound – an exact copy of the one before – found his ears, causing him to rise and head in the direction he’d just come from. Sweat rose from his pores as he took a shooter’s stance and moved forward, yards of pavement disappearing beneath his feet.

His concerns from the previous moments fell away as he pushed on, his mind clearing itself, focusing on the sounds emitted through the darkness. Ahead of him Pier Three jutted out to the right, extending into the ocean. The road opened up beside him, framed by even rows of containers, as he slipped around the side and sighted in on a target.

A hundred yards away, perched near the end of the pier, the spidery chassis of a crane rose into the air, silhouetted against the night sky. Walking heel-to-toe, Thorn kept his steps silent as he pushed in on it, a pair of shadowy figures just visible in the waning light.

Inching forward, he watched as they moved about before disappearing beneath the underbelly of the massive machine, the pier once again seeming deserted.

A moment later that illusion was shattered by the low rumble of the crane kicking to life.

Chapter Seventeen

 

 

The low rumble of the diesel engine carried down the concrete way, filling Thorn’s ears, igniting his senses. Abandoning the silent walk, he moved into a double-time pace, transitioning the gun to his right hand, his fingers wrapped around the thick barrel of it.

For the first time in years he could feel a dormant part of himself come alive, that inner flicker that was only ignited by impending combat. It grew stronger as his pace increased, the line on the crane growing tight, the metal of the container groaning as it wrenched itself free from the ground and began a slow ascent.

Leaving the container to swing like an oversized pendulum, Thorn aimed his run at the base of the crane. His arms cocked at ninety degree angles, his boots slapped at the pavement as he sprinted forward, drawing in deep breaths.

The sound of him approaching drew both of the infiltrators out as he approached, one emerging from either side, pinching in toward him. Slowing just slightly, Thorn pointed himself to the right, squeezing the gun barrel in his hand before unleashing a vicious chop at the bridge of the attacker’s nose.

The butt of the gun connected square, the bone disintegrating beneath the impact. A single moan escaped the man’s lips before he crumpled to the ground, a plume of blood spatter cast across the concrete.

Allowing his momentum to carry himself two steps past his target, Thorn planted his right foot, using it to launch himself back at the second attacker. Halfway there he feigned as if he might attempt the chop again, using the movement to freeze his opponent in place just long enough to smash center mass into the man’s body.

The improvised shoulder block sent both hurtling across the concrete, Thorn rolling twice before popping to his feet, the gun still tight in his hand. Three feet away, his prey was slow to get up, struggling over onto all fours, a pained grunt escaping him.

With two quick steps Thorn closed the gap between them, raising the gun to his shoulder and swinging it like a hatchet at the base of the man’s skull. It connected just behind his right ear, pitching the man forward onto the concrete, his motionless body landing just feet from his partner.

Behind him the sound of heavy, uneven footsteps grew closer, Thorn shifting toward them, his body poised. He relaxed just a bit as Cyrus made his way forward, flailing to a stop as he drew in deep gulps of air.

Overhead the container continued its ascent, moving in a steady path up from the ground, oblivious to what had just taken place. As it did so a new sound found their ears, echoing across the water, drowning out the pervasive din of the engine beside them.

“What the hell is that?” Cyrus asked, still bent at the waist, fighting to catch his breath.

Thorn glanced from the operation booth of the crane to the container as it moved out over the water, the sound growing steadily louder. It continued in a steady pace, high pitches mixed with deep bass thuds.

“People,” Thorn said, the realization pulling the air from his lungs. “That thing is filled with people.”

At that moment the container came to a stop, hanging motionless over the calm, dark waters of the harbor. Just as fast the tension on the line was released, the entire thing splashing into the ocean like an oversized fishing lure.

Saltwater sprayed up onto the pier as Thorn took off at a full sprint, hurtling himself over the edge, falling headfirst into the sea foam lying where the container had just disappeared. The icy cold Atlantic exploded against his skin like a thousand tiny needles as he entered, the suction of the sinking container drawing him down after it. Just three hard strokes after entering the water his fingers found metal, using the hard surface to draw his feet up under him.

Thorn opened his eyes for a split second to be greeted by inky darkness in every direction, his eyes burning from contact with the brine. Clamping them shut, he jammed the barrel of the gun into the back of his pants, using both hands to work his way to the side of the container.

An eerie cacophony of sounds drifted out of the container as inside people continued to cry for help, banging against the metal walls with great aplomb.

Working in the dark, Thorn moved his way to the side edge, using strict feel to find a latch and ultimately the heavy padlock sealing it shut. Removing the .44 from his waistband, Thorn pressed it tight against the latch piece and pulled the trigger.

The sound was muffled underwater, the kickback almost non-existent for a gun of that size. With his free hand he grabbed hold of the implement and jerked on it, bits of shrapnel drifting through his fingers.

As he worked, Thorn could feel the last of his air evaporating in his lungs, tiny pinpricks beginning to jab at his insides. Little sprigs of bright light started to flash behind his eyelids as he lifted the lever on the door, banging twice on it before pressing his feet into the harbor floor and hurtling himself upward.

Chapter Eighteen

 

 

It was the second time in three days Thorn found himself sprawled out on concrete, sputtering as frigid water sluiced from his body. He remained facedown for several moments, letting the cobwebs recede from his vision before pushing himself up onto his knees and drawing the .44 out in front of him.

Under the dim light of the moon, gone was any sign of the two trespassers he had dispatched.

In their place was a solitary figure, his body twisted in a grotesque fashion on the ground.

“Aw hell,” Thorn muttered, trudging to his feet.

Keeping the gun in his right hand, Thorn crossed the pier, watching for any sign of movement, before kneeling beside Cyrus’s body. The left arm and right leg were both shattered and contorted at harsh angles. A bullet hole at the base of his skull oozed blood, just inches beneath lifeless eyes staring up at the sky.

Blowing a breath out through his nose, his body trembling from the air touching his clammy skin, Thorn crossed over to the crane and peered into the cab. As suspected it was deserted, the machine even turned off and the keys left on the seat. He gave a quick pass over the interior for anything that might be left behind, but it was barren.

With angry resignation, Thorn retreated back and dropped to the ground.

In front of him stood a man roughly the same age as he, his coal black hair wet and matted to his head. Sopping wet clothes hung lank over a wiry frame, his nose and chin both formed at sharp angles.

“Is this how you killed my father?” the man asked, his voice thick with contempt.

Thorn cocked his head and narrowed his eyes at the question, but said nothing. The heft of the gun weighed heavy in his hand, hanging by his side in plain sight.

“I said, is this how you killed my father?”

“Yeah, I heard what you said,” Thorn responded, his own voice hard. “I just don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

The man circled to his left as he spoke, his body trembling with fury. “The other container. Is this how it went? You got them into the country just to drown them like mongrel dogs?”

Thorn matched the circling motion in turn, his own anger beginning to build. “If that was the case, why did I just save your ass?”

The man’s eyes blazed at the statement, defiance on his face. “You? Saved my ass?”

Thorn smirked, though there was no joy in the gesture. “What? You think it was a mermaid that shot the lock off the door? Or did you just power it open yourself?”

The man opened his mouth to speak but paused, unsure how to respond. Seizing the moment, Thorn motioned toward Cyrus lying between them, gesturing with his chin. “And then I came back up here and killed my partner, too?”

Again the young man remained silent, acrimony splayed across his features as he stared from Thorn to Cyrus and back again.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Thorn said, nodding for emphasis, droplets of water falling from the top of his head. He shifted away from the man, raising his voice so it carried into the night. “You can come out now, too. And bring Cyrus’s gun with you.”

Confusion passed over the man’s face as he stared at Thorn before the sound of heels clicking against the ground drew his attention away. As it did so, the look of revilement faded from his features, realization, shock, and finally chagrin finding their way in.

“Your sister, I presume, based on the resemblance,” Thorn said, watching as Vanessa emerged from behind a nearby container, walking straight for the man across from him, gun in hand.

Ignoring the statement, the man kept his attention on Vanessa as she grew closer, his jaw falling slack. “What the hell are you doing here, Isabel?”

The single sentence confirmed everything Thorn had thought for the last hour. The entire story of stumbling her way onto the docks was fabricated, including even her name. Remaining in place, he watched as she crossed to the man and wrapped one arm around his neck.

“Isabel, huh?” Thorn said. “I knew you were full of shit.”

“Worked on you two,” she retorted, the saccharine tone from earlier gone.

“No, you took advantage of my partner’s embarrassment,” Thorn replied. “But you didn’t have to kill him.”

Isabel flicked her gaze from Thorn to the body on the ground between them. “I didn’t kill him. I hid until they were gone, then grabbed the gun before you came stumbling back up here like a damned water buffalo.”

Thorn cast her a wary glance, pausing to let her cool down, knowing that anything he said now would only be met by another smart retort.

“So then why are you here?”

His original assessment was correct, as she opened her mouth and raised a finger toward the sky, about to unleash a verbal barrage. Just as fast she stopped, taking pause at his straight-ahead question.

“Yeah, why are you here?” the man beside her asked, his attention shifted her direction. “And dressed like a damn streetwalker?”

A look of pure venom passed over her face as she glared at her brother. “You know why I’m here. It’s the same reason you came up a week ago, the same reason Mama will be here this weekend if she doesn’t hear from me.”

“You shouldn’t have come,” the man snapped. “I can take care of myself.”

“So could Papi.”

Sensing that the situation was fast devolving, Thorn cleared his throat. His skin was now dry to the touch, the ocean breeze having pulled the moisture away, though he could feel his core temperature continuing to drop in his wet pants and boots.

“Not to break up the family moment here, but…” he said, leaving the statement open ended.

The pair across from him remained in a faceoff for several long moments before shifting toward him, the male taking the lead.

“My name is Antonio Garcia, this is my sister Isabel,” he said, motioning between them. “Since you work here, I’m sure you know what goes on after dark. Our presence shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.”

Folding his arms across his chest, the gun still held in his right hand, Thorn looked each of them over.

Given everything that had just taken place, it wasn’t hard to ascertain what Antonio was alluding to. Still, he would rather hear the words then have to go on any conjecture.

“I’ve worked here a total of four hours,” Thorn said. “Let’s pretend I don’t know anything.”

Across from him Isabel snorted, but said nothing.

“So you don’t know that you’re standing on one of the pre-eminent ports in all of America for smuggling Cubans into the country?” Nio asked, his eyes narrowed.

“Cubans?” Thorn asked. “As in, illegal immigrants?”

“No, cigars, you idiot,” Isabel blurted.

Thorn leveled a hardened glare on her, but remained silent.

The truth was, even now looking at the two of them, their features unmistakably Hispanic, he never would have guessed that he was standing at the endpoint for a pipeline from Havana. Everything he had ever heard was that Cubans tended to flood in through Florida, assimilating into society there without so much as a passing glance.

“A steady line of ocean traffic runs from Galveston to Boston,” Nio said, lifting his soaked shirt overhead and dropping it to the ground with a heavy slap of saturated material against concrete. “With the embargo on Cuba, the easiest form of entry is to have a ship swing a little wide along the way.”

There was much Thorn wanted to ask, holes that needed filled in, but he let it pass. There would be time for that later.

“So the two of you just came off the island?” he asked.

Isabel smirked. “You would think that, wouldn’t you?”

For a moment Thorn thought of telling her to find a corner somewhere to stand on, but held his tongue. Right now they were divulging information, something he sorely needed. It was best to keep them talking, no matter how many times she spouted off at him.

“No,” Antonio said, taking a half step forward, extending a hand toward his sister. “That’s a fair question.”

He turned his head toward Thorn. “And the answer is no. With the exception of myself for the past few days, neither of us has ever been on the island.”

Thorn remained rooted in place, waiting for him to continue.

“Several weeks ago our father went to visit. At some point between departing and arriving here, he disappeared.”

Again Thorn got the impression there were parts of the story that were being left out, but he let it pass. Instead, he turned over his shoulder and examined the few handfuls of people scattered along the pier, some trudging in the opposite direction, others huddled together nearby.

In total, there appeared to be no more than a dozen.

“How many boarded?” Thorn asked, nodding toward the people drifting away from them.

“I don’t know,” Nio replied. “Better part of a hundred anyway.”

Thorn again scanned over the thin crowd dispersing in front of them, shaking his head at the numbers still trapped on the harbor floor. “What happens to them now?”

Nio shook his head. “The same thing that happens to every illegal immigrant that survives the trip. They’ll find family or friends if they have them, find work if they don’t.”

“Damn,” Thorn muttered.

“Still a hell of a lot better than the island,” Isabel said, earning a nod of agreement from her brother.

Thorn shifted his attention from the refugees to Nio and Isabel. “And what happens to you?”

Nio lowered his head to the side and looked at Thorn with a sideways stare. He remained that way for a moment before saying, “Eventually, we’ll find our way back to Miami.”

The insinuation was none-too-subtle. “Eventually?”

“You know we can’t leave without knowing,” Nio said, raising his head back up to look straight at Thorn.

“I can respect that,” Thorn said, “so long as you respect that isn’t my problem.”

Across from him Isabel took a half-step forward, again raising her finger, ready to berate him. Once more she was cut off by her brother, him stepping forward, putting a hand on her wrist.

“Meaning?” he asked.

“Meaning this is my job,” Thorn said. He motioned to Cyrus growing cold between them. “And any second now I have to phone this in. Within a half hour this place is about to be crawling with pissed off Irishmen.”

The top of Nio’s head rose in a slow nod of acceptance. “We’re Cuban. We’re good at disappearing when we need to.”

Again the implication was clear, if completely unstated. “I get the feeling I’ll be seeing you both again soon.”

“And I get the feeling you’re not just a security guard,” Nio replied, meeting the gaze.

The three stood for another moment, watching as the last of those that survived the container disappeared into the night. Once they were gone, Thorn looked down again at his fallen partner before following the trail of water left drying along the pier.

A few steps down he turned, walking backwards. He hooked a thumb at his chest and said, “Thorn Byrd.”

“Seriously?” Isabel asked, no small hint of surprise in her voice. “Did your parents hate you or something?

“Nio,” the man called, cutting things off before Thorn could reply. “Short for Antonio Garcia. And you can call her Iggy.”

“No, he can’t!” Isabel snapped, the sound of a hand hitting flesh sounding out.

“Iggy it is,” Thorn muttered, shifting to face front, his mind already working on the next steps before him.

Chapter Nineteen

 

 

Ling pounded the ball of his fist against the heavy metal door, his ire rising as each knock went unanswered. Above him, he could see the camera angle down as he removed the fedora covering his face.

“It’s me, you idiots, open the damn door.”

Anger roiling through him, he smashed the hat back down atop his head and knocked twice in succession. He exhaled and waited a full second before knocking a third time.

The door swung open on cue a moment later.

Ling burst through with long steps, moving straight down the hall. A beefy guard with dark hair and bushy eyebrows stepped out from the guard room beside the door and said, “Sorry, Ling, you know the…”

Before he could finish the sentence, Ling snapped a straight left into his mouth, smashing lips against teeth and sending the much larger man toppling backwards.

“There’s what I think of your rules,” Ling spat and left the man on the floor, headed for Gold’s office without looking back.

Despite the late hour, the house looked just as it always did. A few servants roamed the halls, each giving him a wide berth, and the interior was well lit. Crossing the open foyer to the stairwell in the corner, Ling bounded up, taking the stairs two at a time, and entered to find Gold sitting behind his desk as if expecting him.

“I take it this visit isn’t a social call?” Gold asked without preamble.

“No,” Ling replied, the word little more than a hiss.

“What went wrong?” Gold asked, peering at his employee, getting right to the crux of the matter.

“Somebody was waiting for us.”

“Isn’t there always somebody waiting for us?”

“Yes,” Ling conceded, “but this time was different. It was almost like they knew we were coming and what we were going to do.”

Gold made a motion for Ling to continue before pulling his hand back and lacing his fingers before him, saying nothing.

“Two man team,” Ling recounted. “One went right for the container, the other came for me in the crane.”

“You take care of them?”

“The one dumb enough to come for me,” Ling said. “Never had a chance at the other.”

A disapproving look fell over Gold’s features, his lips pursed. “Not like you to leave survivors.”

“I didn’t think there were any. He surfaced just as I was dragging the others to their feet.”

“They were on the ground?” Gold asked, his brow furrowed.

“The first one put them down before he went in after the container,” Ling said, his eyes and voice both lowered.

Gold accepted the information without comment, nodding slightly. “Have we seen him before?”

“No,” Ling said.

“But he’s good?” Gold asked, raising his eyebrows, looking up at Ling expectantly.

Vitriol boiled within Ling as he stared back, pulling his mouth into a tight line. “He was lucky tonight. Won’t happen again.”

“You’re sure?”

Ling knew what Gold was doing, was fighting with everything he had not to let it get to him, but there was little he could do to stop his hatred from flashing.

“I’m going after him as soon as I leave here,” Ling seethed.

Gold raised a hand. “If he was just lucky, as you say, then he can wait. Right now our focus is on the meeting in a couple of days.”

While he did not agree with the answer, Ling chose not to challenge it. “Do we change our approach to the docks at all?”

A long moment passed as Gold considered the question, tilting the top of his head to the side. “Were you seen?”

“No,” Ling said. “They’ve put up cameras, but we shot them out before they got a look at us.”

“Then I see no reason to stop what we’re doing there. You know as well as I that the docks are central to our plans. Without them, the meeting and everything we’ve worked for is useless.”

Ling could feel the flush of blood pooling into his cheeks as he endured the same lecture he’d heard a hundred times before. Still, he remained silent.

“And if this meeting is worthless,” Gold continued, “we’re going to anger a lot of people, people much more dangerous than a single dock worker.”

The last part was no doubt a jab, the heat rising even more to Ling’s face. “Yes, sir.”

Without waiting for the old man to continue, Ling pivoted on his heel to leave. He passed through the curtain at the top of the stairs and descended, again taking them two at a time. His anger still sat heavy within him, but there was nothing he could do about it for the time being.

As his foot touched the bottom landing, Gold’s voice called out from above.

“Ling, do you think we were set up tonight?”

Ling turned to see Gold sitting atop the staircase, holding the curtain back with the gold-tipped end of his cane. “Set up?”

Gold leveled a knowing stare at Ling, but said nothing.

Ling peered back as the realization of what – or rather who – Gold was referring to set in. He considered it a moment before shaking his head in the negative.

“Too spur of the moment for a planned setup. Like I said, the kid got lucky.”

Gold stared a moment longer before putting the wheelchair in reverse and speeding away. The last Ling saw of him was the gold tip of his cane as it disappeared and the heavy curtain swung back into place.

Chapter Twenty

 

 

A plate of bacon and eggs sat steaming on the counter beside Thorn as he lowered himself into a chair along his elevated bar and began to eat. In front of him was his laptop, the screen already open, a video conference window poised and ready to play. In quick succession he took in three large bites of eggs, handed a slice of bacon to Abby, and dialed Ingram’s number.

He was still chewing as the image of Ingram came up in front of him, his former coach wearing a dress shirt without a tie, looking fresh.

“Sorry I’m late,” Thorn said. “Debrief took longer than expected.”

He made no effort to hide the grouse, or the exhaustion, in his voice.

“Aw, hell,” Ingram said. “Good first night I take it?”

Thorn snorted, his head rocking back a bit. “Depends on your definition of good.”

“Meaning?”

Thorn had spent the entire ride home trying to determine how to best package the events of the night. In all that time he had arrived at the unenviable conclusion that there wasn’t one, nearly everything that had transpired being bad.

“Meaning on night one, my coworker was killed, along with the better part of a hundred Cuban refugees that were stowed away inside a storage container.”

He decided to stop there, knowing Ingram would have scads of questions, choosing to let him ask whatever he wanted instead of trying to summarize it all at once.

For a moment Ingram stared back at him, a look on his face that displayed he wasn’t quite sure if Thorn was telling him the truth or not. “That’s a hell of a first night’s debrief.”

“It was a hell of a first night,” Thorn said.

On the floor beside him Abby let out a low whine, a strong hint that she was finished with her first piece of bacon and ready for more. The same thought passed through Thorn as the aroma of the food wafted up at him, just inches from his fingertips.

“Were you able to find out anything?” Ingram asked.

Thorn leaned forward and rested his elbows on the edge of the counter, looking into the camera. “Whoever’s behind this has done their homework. They knew our round schedule and knew which container to go for. If it hadn’t been for the crane turning on, we may not have even known they were there.”

“Crane?” Ingram asked. “Meaning they hooked up a container and dropped it in the harbor?”

“Yeah,” Thorn said, bobbing his head up and down, a scowl on his features. “A hundred people screaming inside and they tossed it in the water like it was a bath toy.”

“Damn,” Ingram said, looking up at the ceiling as he thought out loud. “That’s cold. Sounds almost personal.”

The same thought had occurred to Thorn less than an hour before, though he refrained from saying as much.

Ingram pursed his lips and thought another moment in silence. “What else?”

“After it went down, I waited until the refugees cleared out and called Sam King.”

Ingram flipped open a manila folder on his desk, rifling through sheets of paper until finding what he was looking for and reading from it. ”Sam King, looks to be Turner’s go to guy on the docks.”

“Two o’clock in the morning and he was there twenty minutes after I called.”

“He shake you down any?” Ingram asked.

“No, but he had no reason to,” Thorn said. “The scene confirmed everything I told him. After that, he made a few calls, brought in a crew to clean things up.”

“Any idea who he called?”

“Naw,” Thorn said, shaking his head. “I heard him mention the Cubans, but I didn’t get a name.”

“Nothing we didn’t already know there.”

Thorn nodded, but said nothing.

“So what’s the next move?” Ingram asked.

“I’m on again at eight,” Thorn said, a sigh rolling out with the information.

Ingram raised his eyebrows and said, “You really think they’ll come back tonight?”

“Tonight? Not a chance, but it’ll give me time to figure out if those cameras actually saw anything and, if so, get a copy of the tapes.”

Ingram wrote a note down, scribbling on the pad in front of him. “You don’t sound convinced.”

“I’m not. There wasn’t a light on a single one and the few that had wires running from them weren’t attached to anything.”

”Anything else?” Ingram asked, finishing his notation and looking up expectantly.

“I’m going to need some things from you.”

“Name it.”

From this point on, Thorn was going purely on speculation. He had nothing more than a couple of conversations with Ingram in terms of knowing what his new employer had for capabilities, but it was time to start testing the boundaries.

“I need a few fiber optic cameras,” Thorn opened. ”Something small, inconspicuous.”

If there was any surprise from Ingram at the request, he didn’t let it show. “Okay.”

“Also,” Thorn said, watching close for any reaction from his boss. He was just a few days into the job and knew he might already be pushing his luck. “We know these guys are targeting two things, and I don’t feel good using people as bait.”

“You’re going to need some cars,” Ingram said, connecting the dots, jumping straight to the conclusion.

“Just enough to fill one container. A few muscle cars, a foreign job or two with flashy paint, I’m sure we’ve got a database somewhere of what’s hot right now.”

“We do,” Ingram confirmed. “How are you going to leak the word that they’re coming in? I can put them on a boat, but that doesn’t mean anybody will know about it.”

“Already working on it.”

Ingram finished jotting down the request. “When do you need this stuff?”

“Maybe tomorrow on both?”

Raising his wrist, Ingram pushed back the sleeve on his shirt, checking the time. “Should be doable.”

“Alright,” Thorn said, bringing his hands together in front of him, a slight clap sounding out. “That should do it.”

“Good work on your first day,” Ingram said, already moving about on the other side of the camera, heading off to fill the requests he’d just been given. “I’ll talk to you later.”

“Thanks, Coach. Later,” Thorn said, slamming the laptop shut. He paused a moment, his hands still flat on top of it, before shifting his attention to the meal fast growing cold beside him.

“What do you say, Abby,” he said, turning to look down at the floor, his dog still in the same spot, staring hopefully up at him. “We finish eating and then hit the hay?”

Chapter Twenty-One

 

 

Nine blocks from the docks, Iggy had rented a single room in a cheap hotel. Close enough to swing by whenever she needed, far enough away to allow ample time to watch for a tail upon returning.

At half past eight o’clock, she and Nio together stepped out of their room and down to the street. Darkness began to descend on the city as they went for a stroll, Iggy’s hand looped into the crook of Nio’s arm, just another young couple without a care in the world. They maintained the pose for over twenty minutes, working their way toward the docks in the most circuitous route they could manage without being noticed.

An ambient glow rose from the city as the last of the sun disappeared beneath the horizon. Once it was gone, they looped their way toward the dock, avoiding the guardhouse on the far end, concentrating their efforts on the cluster of buildings sitting a half mile away.

The sum total of Iggy’s efforts the previous nights had yielded her a fair bit of information. Her first evening had rendered a pretty decent layout of the small structures grouped tight. The next two she had managed to sweet talk a pair of bumbling oafs into revealing far more than they should have.

The result was a hand-drawn map she had made from memory and the strong supposition that the feeds for the cameras she saw stuck at various locations were housed in one of two buildings. Both small and nondescript, they were tucked away in a remote corner, virtually out of sight from the main thruway.

Identical in construction, each was made of wood with plain glass windows on either side of the front door. Like every building on the dock, they were neat and in good repair, if not a little aged.

“You take one, I’ll take one?” Iggy suggested, pulling her hand free from her brother’s arm as they approached.

“No,” Nio said, shaking his head as they ducked behind a dumpster overlooking the buildings, the scent of day old produce finding their nostrils. “One of us needs to stand watch. You stay outside and I’ll go in.”

“You’re seriously trying to play the tough guy card on me?” Iggy seethed, her brow pinching inward. “I’m the little lady who cries help and you’re the gallant knight on his white horse?”

“Knights and little ladies?” Nio asked, his face contorted in surprise as he twisted to look at her. “And who the hell said anything about a horse?”

“You know what I mean,” Iggy snapped. “We’ll go one at a time while the other stands watch.”

For the sake of time and maintaining their cover Nio let the directive pass, avoiding the same conversation that had played out with them for years, always ending the same way. Instead he circled toward the first building, Iggy on his heels. He waited as she positioned herself, giving him a small wave once she was tucked away with a clear vantage of their surroundings.

The plan, as thin as it may be, was for them to gain access to the data stored from the cameras and use it to determine if their father did in fact arrive in Boston. Using Nio’s journey as a barometer, they had a rough idea of when their father left and how long the trip took, knowing to start a few days before, checking only the hours of dusk until dawn.

The hope was to find out definitively if their father had passed, and if so, who was responsible.

Nio started with the front door, determining it as expected to be locked tight, the same for the windows on either side of it. Slipping around to the far end of the building, he found one cracked just a half inch and wedged his fingers under it, the aging paint grunting in protest as he slid it upward.

Once it was open just over a foot, Nio ducked his head around the front of the building and asked, “All clear?”

“For now, but if anybody’s close they definitely heard that racket you were making.”

Nio didn’t bother to respond, instead sliding his head and shoulders through the window and scanning the room in both directions. In it was a standard office set-up, replete with a desk, file cabinet, ancient computer, and a couple of office chairs.

Pulling himself through, he went straight for the filing cabinet and rifled through it. Heavy manila folders stuffed with purchase orders and receipts filled the drawers, but nothing of any value.

The thought of trying the computer crossed his mind, but it appeared far too old to serve as the repository for the cameras, not worth risking the lights or noise of turning on. Instead, he opened the office door and stepped into the foyer.

The door of the second office stood slightly ajar as he pressed his back against the wall alongside it and nudged it open. The iron hinges of the door creaked as it inched back, going just far enough to allow him to squeeze through.

The office was a mirror copy of the first, furnished in the same way and housing more outdated equipment. The only difference was a small collection of personal photos atop the desk that showed a plump woman with red hair and two small girls that looked exactly like her. Nio shook his head in sympathy for the poor man that went home to that every night and again dug through the filing cabinet.

The result was more of the same banal paperwork and four minutes after entering, he slid out through the window and pushed it back down into place.

“Still clear?” he whispered, joining Iggy along the front of the building. Despite the cool evening air, beads of sweat lined his forehead, his heart rate pounding

“The only sounds I’ve heard were you,” she replied, a trace of hostility present in her tone.

“Not a thing in there,” Nio whispered, ignoring her comment. “Purchase orders and such, couple of computers that looked like they were bought used in the eighties.”

“Hmm,” Iggy said, nodding. “Time to check door number two.”

With one last glance in either direction, she pushed away from the building and ran in a crouch for its twin, Nio behind her. They reached it at the same time, huddling low in the shadows along the far side and peering out into the night for any signs of life.

“You sure you want to do this?” Nio asked. “I’ll go again.”

“You think you’re the only one that can climb through a window into an empty building?”

“It wasn’t quite that easy,” Nio said, his mouth drawn into a tight line.

“Actually it was, even if you were sweating like a pig when you got done.”

“Just go already,” Nio conceded, his sister’s perpetual jabs beginning to wear thin. “I’ll stand watch.”

Iggy smirked at her victory and slid past Nio to the front of the building. Both windows appeared shut tight from the outside and as she passed the door, she gave the handle a cursory twist to make sure it was locked.

To her surprise, it turned without protest.

“Nio,” she whispered. “The front door is open. I’m going in.”

Nio craned his head around the corner to face her. “If the door’s unlocked there may be someone inside.”

Pressing her ear to the door, Iggy paused and listened a moment before dropping low to peer beneath the doorjamb. “I don’t hear anything or see any lights.”

“Still, be careful.”

Holding the knob twisted completely to the side in her hand, Iggy slid inside and stood rooted on the front foyer. She pressed the door just short of closed and eased the knob back into neutral, remaining motionless as her eyes adjusted to the darkness inside.

One door stood closed on either side of the hallway, the building silent.

Her body temperature rose as she moved to her right and nudged the door open a couple of inches. Inside, the room was shrouded in darkness, shadows bouncing over a solid wooden desk and a couple of chairs.

She didn’t bother to go inside.

Pulling the door closed behind her, she shuffled three steps across the foyer and paused outside the opposite entry. She eased the door open and peered in to see a black desk along the far wall, a bank of video monitors mounted above it. On each of them were images from around the docks, ranging from empty concrete walkways to Thorn and another man making rounds.

Over thirty screens in total.

In the middle of the room, a black rolling desk chair sat empty, turned away from the wall. The smell of coffee and body odor filled the space, the room appearing deserted.

Heart racing, Iggy held her breath and sidestepped into the room, going straight for the desk. She avoided the chair as she positioned herself in front of the monitors, studying the images on them as the door swung closed behind her, freezing her in place.

Before she could react, or make a movement of any kind, a pair of thick arms wrapped around her, squeezing her tight against a barrel chest.

“Well, now, isn’t this a treat?” a thick Boston accent wheezed in her ear, breath rancid on her cheek. “Not every night a tasty young lass walks in to see me.”

“I’m here to see you, am I?” Iggy asked, writhing her body, trying to force some crack of space between them.

Stamping down hard with her right foot, the heel of her shoe connected with the man’s toes, loosening his grip. Using the tiny opening, she jammed her left elbow into his solar plexus, forcing out a pained gasp as for the briefest of moments his grip relaxed.

In that instant Iggy turned for the door, making it just a step and half before the stony grip returned, lifting her from the ground and tossing her backwards into the chair. Several vertebrae in her back popped as she landed hard, her force pushing the chair across the room and slamming it back into the desk.

“You’re a feisty little bitch, aren’t you?” the man asked, rubbing the back of his fist along his chin. For the first time Iggy could see that he was just a few inches taller than her but almost a foot wider. A square head with auburn curls sat atop even shoulders, and a heavy splash of whiskers covered most of his face.

In a rare bit of propriety, she bit back the venomous words on her tongue as she stared at him.

“See that monitor right there?” the man said, nodding with his forehead. “It feeds in from a camera over the front door. I saw you the entire time. All I had to do was sit here and pray you’d be dumb enough to step inside.”

The thought of Nio outside came to mind and Iggy eased the chair to the left, hoping to block the corresponding camera, or at the very least distract the man from noticing it. She wasn’t sure how long it would be before he came looking for her, but didn’t want the man to notice when he did.

A look of mild amusement spread across her captor’s face as he watched her, oblivious to what she was trying to do. “You think there’s a way out over there, do you?”

Iggy glanced to her left, allowing the fear she felt to show on her features. “Isn’t there?”

The man smiled and began unbuckling his belt. “There’s only one way you’re walking out of here, if you’re able to walk at all.”

The man slid off his belt and dropped it to the ground, the heavy buckle making a clatter as it bounced off the floorboards. One step at a time he sauntered toward her, his tongue sliding out over his bottom lip as he sized her up.

Halfway across the room his journey came to an abrupt end as a dark blur swung up between his legs, connecting with the soft tissue of his groin. A single moan escaped his lips as his eyes rolled back in his head, his body crumpling to the floor.

Replacing him in Iggy’s sightline was Nio, a look of pure acrimony on his face as he stared from the man to her. “You okay?”

Pushing herself up from the chair, Iggy swung her right foot at the man, catching him across the cheek, his inert form rolling over onto his side. “Thank God you didn’t wait any longer.”

Exasperation spread across Nio’s features. “A shout out would have sped things along you know.”

“A shout out would have given away your position.”

Nio opened his mouth to respond, but closed it. He knew better than to argue. “You get the footage we need. I’ll tie this guy up.”

Iggy pulled the chair over in front of the computer as Nio took the belt up from the floor. He wrapped it around the man’s wrists, then pulled them back behind him and looped it over his left foot.

When he was done, the man resembled a misshapen pretzel.

A quick pat down revealed him to be carrying a.38 revolver and a folding pocketknife, Nio taking them both and depositing them on the desk. When he was done, he left the man lying inert on the floor, turning his attention to the computer.

Resting an arm on the back of the chair, Nio leaned in close, watching as Iggy worked the cursor across the screen. “Any luck?”

“Maybe,” Iggy said, her voice detached. As she did so, she clicked on a folder icon, a list of files spreading open before them. Labeled by date, they started less than a week before, running through the first part of June.

Scanning down the list, Iggy clicked on 6/13, a list of over thirty numbers, all ordered sequentially, springing forth.

“What the hell?” Nio said.

“Camera numbers, maybe?” Iggy offered. She motioned toward the monitors above them with a wave of her left hand. “Any idea where we were last night?”

Folding his arms across his chest, Nio stepped to the side, examining the bank of screens. Without the benefit of color and void of life, they all looked much the same.

“Not really,” Nio said. “Try 13 or 22. Both have a crane. That’s about the only thing I can remember. You’ve been all over the docks for days now, anything look familiar?”

“At this point it all kind of looks familiar,” Iggy replied, clicking on number 22 to open the file.

A moment later, a media player came to life, a time stamp in the corner. Using the mouse, she sped the video feed to 11:30. There were no signs of movement as she pushed the dial further to the right, watching everything in fast forward.

Nothing but concrete and containers stared back at them.

“Strike one,” she said and closed the file.

“Try 13,” Nio suggested.

Behind them, the man groaned, his voice labored, bits of consciousness finding their way back in. Without pause Nio picked up the .38 and swung it downward, striking the man across the back of the head with the butt of the gun. The man’s head bounced off the floor as his body fell slack, a trickle of blood running down from his ear onto the wooden floor.

Iggy raised her eyebrows as she turned back to the computer. “Nice shot. Didn’t see that one coming.”

Nio dropped the gun back down, a smear of blood hitting the desktop. “I find myself in a bit of a bad mood these days.”

Iggy nodded and scrolled along the footage for camera 13. She moved the cursor several times along the play bar for the camera, but each time found nothing but static. “Must be broken. Any others catch your eye?”

Nio glanced up at the monitors before shifting his attention back to the screen. “Or it was knocked out?”

Dragging the scroll tab back to the left, Iggy moved slowly, drawing in a sharp breath of air as the static disintegrated, a camera view coming into focus. “Here we go.”

The screen was almost identical to the previous camera, nothing more than a grainy black-and-white picture of concrete and shipping containers. Halfway through, a pair of men in black skirted across the screen, their movements quick and precise, not once looking around for any sign of others. A moment later a third man came into view, wearing a fedora and carrying a gun with an elongated barrel. With measured steps, he strode into the field of vision and raised his gun toward the camera.

The last thing the video caught was a muzzle flash before cutting away to static.

“Not a whole lot to work with,” Nio said, glancing down to see that no more than a minute and a half had passed in total.

Sliding open the top desk drawer, Iggy rifled around until finding what she was looking for and removing a blank CD. Jamming it into the CD-ROM port, she set the file to copy.

“No, but it’s something.”

When the burn was complete, Iggy pulled the CD out and went into the file for the current day. Looking up at the wall, she determined which camera was positioned above the door before deleting the entry for the entire night.

“How far back do they go?” Nio asked.

“Just a few days,” Iggy replied, shaking her head. “They must have put them in after Papi went down.”

Silence fell for a moment, neither wanting to put to words what they both feared.

“We’re done here,” Nio finally whispered, his voice low. “Let’s go.”

“What should we do with him?” Iggy asked, glancing at their bound captive on the floor.

“Leave him,” Nio said. “He never saw me and should have a hell of a time explaining how one girl kicked his ass and tied him up.”

Chapter Twenty-Two

 

 

Luis Cardoza swirled the dark brown liquid around the bottom of his tumbler before sipping the aged Irish whiskey he’d been given while waiting for Billy Turner. Smacking his lips, he set the glass down on the table in front of him and leaned back against the soft leather sofa he was seated on, twisting his head at the neck to survey the room around him.

While it was not sparse, it had a definite utilitarian feel to it. The furniture was well made and very comfortable, but not concerned with aesthetics. The rug on the floor employed a single solid color and the paintings on the wall were from unnamed artists featuring various Irish landscapes.

The room, from its muted tones to its purpose-driven pieces, confirmed everything he knew about his colleague.

On cue, a side door opened and Turner entered. Despite the late hour he still wore a sport coat and slacks, extending his hand to Cardoza as he approached. Cardoza stood and returned the gesture before both men settled into seats across from one another.

“Welcome to my home, Luis. I apologize for keeping you waiting,” Turner opened.

“Not at all,” Cardoza replied, waving a hand in front of him. “I apologize for coming unannounced, even more so for coming so late.”

“Quite alright,” Turned replied. “I told you all when we began working together that my door was always open no matter the hour.”

Luis nodded and said, “Please know I meant no disrespect to your family in coming by. Something hasn’t been sitting well with me and I wished to speak with you about it.”

“As in, not in front of the others?” Turner asked, his mouth drawing tighter.

“When put that way, it makes it sound like I am here to accuse you of something, which I am not. I am here to try and make sense of things and you seemed the most logical to speak with.”

The apprehension remained on Turner’s face a long moment before receding with a nod. His jaw unclenched itself a bit, his fingers relaxing back from flexed talons. “I appreciate you coming to speak with me. Given the circumstances, it would be easy to start second guessing each other.”

Cardoza took another nip of the whiskey, the warm liquid sliding down his gullet. “What happened last night?”

There was much more he could have added, many more aspects of the previous evening he would like clarified, but left things intentionally vague. Each man in their operation was already well acquainted with what occurred, there was no need to belabor it.

“My men and I have spent the day doing everything we can to answer that question,” Turner said. “Thus far, we know that yesterday your container arrived on time and was unloaded. It sat on the end of the pier through the evening and at around 11:30 at least three men made their way onto the dock. They accessed our loading crane and used it to lift the container from where it rested and drop it into the water.

“The two men on shift were at the far end of the dock on their normal patrol, making us believe that whoever these people were knew our rotation schedule. Our men moved in on them as soon as the crane kicked on, responding in less than two minutes. One went for the operator of the crane and the other went into the water after the container. We know he was able to wrench the door open and several people got back to shore, but how many or where they are now we can’t be certain.”

Cardoza nodded and swirled the whiskey for several moments, processing the information. “Were your men able to get a good look at anyone?”

Turner opened the left flap of his jacket, extracting a photograph from it and sliding it across the table to Cardoza. “We were able to pull this image from our surveillance cameras just before they were shot out.”

Cardoza picked up the photograph and studied it. The picture was a color print, though almost entirely in muted shades. The lone man in it was dressed in black, a fedora pulled down over most of his features, blocking a good portion and blanketing even more in shadow.

At best, a quarter of his face remained visible.

“Have you been able to identify him yet?”

Turner shook his head. “No, not yet. We’re circulating copies and asking everybody that’s anybody if they recognize him, but as you can see, we don’t have a lot to go on.”

Cardoza studied the picture and said, “May I keep this?”

“I have a stack of copies for you should you wish to distribute them through your own channels.”

“Thank you, I will do that.” Cardoza studied the picture a moment longer and said, “This man of yours that was able to open the container, who is he?”

“His name is Robert Myers, a recent hire of ours.”

“He has done me a great service. I would like to meet him.”

“I can arrange that for you,” Turner said.

Cardoza nodded. “I have a matter of business I would like to discuss with the both of you. How does two days from now sound?”

“Right here, say nine o’clock?” Turner asked.

Again Cardoza waved a hand in front of himself. “Thank you for the invitation, but I wouldn’t dream of intruding on your home again. Allow me to treat you both to dinner. How does eight o’clock at my restaurant, La Rosa Negra, sound?”

“We’ll be there.”

Chapter Twenty-Three

 

 

Mini-cooler in hand, Thorn walked away from the docks and toward the employee parking lot in the far back corner of the grounds, thankful his second night on the job had been better than the first. One of just a small handful of employees working the graveyard shift, he walked alone toward his Explorer tucked along the back row. Scads of day workers passed him in the opposite direction, none paying him any mind.

“Not even going to stop and say hello?”

The voice was recognizable in an instant, drawing Thorn’s gaze up from the ground at his feet, pulling him from his thoughts. His face remained neutral as he found its owner sitting on a bench along the chain-link fence encompassing the lot, her brother by her side.

Thorn waited until he’d covered the ground between them before saying anything, his face still betraying no outward response. “Come down here to watch the boats again did you?”

A rising of the eyebrows was Iggy’s only response, a non-verbal cue that she understood, but didn’t necessarily find the humor in, his comment.

Pushing himself to a standing position, Nio extracted a clear plastic case from the side pocket on his cargo shorts, holding it by the bottom corner with his thumb and forefinger. “I know you haven’t been to bed yet, so we’ll keep this short.”

He handed the disc across to Thorn, who accepted it by the opposite corner, his dirty hands smudging the new casing.

“Okay,” Thorn said, his voice even. “What am I looking for on here?”

“You’ll see,” Iggy said, pushing herself to full height behind her brother and stretching her hands up high overhead.

A dozen thoughts about what could be on the disc passed through Thorn’s mind, each as unlikely as the one before it. Looking down, he rotated it over to examine the bottom side, no identifying marks of any kind visible.

“Why are you giving this to me?” he asked, keeping his gaze on Nio, Iggy in his periphery.

The faintest hint of a smile pulled at the right side of Nio’s mouth as he started to drift away, his sister matching the movement. “Like I said the other night, I still get the impression you’re not just a security guard.”

Once more Thorn glanced down at the item in his hand before looking up, turning at the waist to watch the siblings depart, though making no move of his own to join them.

“And if I need to talk to you afterwards?”

The question slowed their pace just a bit, Nio crossing his left foot over his right in an exaggerated gait. “What time does your shift start in the evening?”

“Eight,” Thorn said, his eyebrows pinching together just slightly.

“What a coincidence, that’s the same time we usually like to have our evening coffee,” Nio said, raising his palms by his side, a smile on his face.

Chapter Twenty-Four

 

 

Thorn watched the entirety of the video three times, taking a sum total of about five minutes. Each time he felt the animosity within him grow a little stronger, his ire aimed at the single figure in the fedora.

While the two men that preceded him onscreen both appeared proficient, the way they had frozen under Thorn’s attack proved they were nothing more than hired hands. Everything about the man behind them, from the way he carried himself to the way he dressed, even the fact that he was the one wielding a gun, proved that he was the one in charge.

It also proved that he was the man to both kill Cyrus and dump the container of refugees into the ocean.

More than once in his prior life Thorn had dealt with people such as he, those that had a wanton disregard for life. Singularly focused on some distant goal, they used it to justify any and all actions, no matter how heinous, regardless how extensive the collateral damage.

On the final viewing, Thorn took a still image shot of the man, saving it to his desktop. After doing so, he brought his video conferencing software to life, calling on Ingram.

It rang only twice before Ingram’s face appeared before him.

“Morning, Thorn.”

“Morning, Coach,” Thorn replied, cutting straight to his main objective for the call. “Everything set for tonight?”

Ingram shuffled through a few papers atop his desk and said, “It is. There’s a container loaded and en route to Boston as we speak.”

“Enough to draw interest?”

“A Viper, a Testarosa, two Corvettes, and an old school Gran Torino with enough under the hood to blow the clothes off a woman ten yards away,” Ingram said, rattling the information off before looking up from the printout in his hand. “That do it?”

Growing up in a navy town with a naval officer for a father, automobiles received a minimal amount of interest from Thorn at best. Before taking on the Explorer, the last ride he had was a twelve-wheel transport designed for carrying soldiers through coastal towns.

Still, even to his untrained ear, the list seemed sufficient.

“That should do it,” Thorn agreed.

“Any idea how you intend to draw them in?”

“Already have,” Thorn said, leaning forward and running a hand along the back of his neck, his short hair feeling like bristles against his palm. “Wrote out a phony purchase order and sent a copy to the dock manager before I went on last night. Told him I found it out on patrol and thought it looked important.

“After that, I asked my new partner and the guys we relieved if they heard about the big shipment of cars coming in tonight, made a few anonymous online posts. If the merchandise is actually what these guys are interested in, we’ll know it by this time tomorrow.”

“And if it isn’t?”

“Then we’ll know that, too,” Thorn said.

A moment passed as Ingram considered the argument. “I like it. What else you got?”

In response Thorn looked away, twisting his head at the neck, watching Abby as she turned in a small circle before settling herself down into a tight ball on the couch.

He wasn’t sure how to best approach what he’d been given by the Garcia’s, even less certain how well it would be received.

“I was able to get a copy of the security video from night before last,” he began, opting for a very narrow version of the truth for the time being. “Whoever it was shot out the camera before anything important was recorded, but there was a few seconds of footage at the beginning.”

The information seemed to gain Ingram’s attention, his eyebrow tracking upward in anticipation. “Anything we can use?”

“Just one image,” Thorn said, minimizing the window and bringing up his email. “I’m sending it over to you now. Most of the face is blocked by a hat and shadows, but you may be able to pull something from it. I’m assuming we’ve got some pretty high-end facial recognition software lying around somewhere.”

“Ha!” Ingram coughed out, his voice becoming a bit detached as he went to look in on the file. “You assume correctly.”

Waiting, Thorn pulled the video feed back up in silence, watching as his counterpart looked at the image.

“Could be anybody,” Ingram muttered.

Thorn offered a grim nod in agreement, having had the same thought just minutes before. The picture told him more about the kind of man he was up against than who he actually was.

In the end, he had a feeling that information would prove far more valuable.

“I’ll make it first priority,” Ingram said, his voice returning to the conversation, rising in volume. “Anything else?”

“Were you able to track down any of the fiber optics I asked for?” Thorn asked.

A Cheshire smile spread across Ingram’s face as he stared back into the camera, rotating to face forward. “Check your back porch. I have a feeling you might have gotten a little visit from Santa Clause this morning.”

Chapter Twenty-Five

 

 

From the second floor of his newly purchased Cape Cod home, Bern Gold sat in his wheelchair and stared out through a bank of tinted glass windows at the proceedings below. Just ten yards beneath him, a large stairwell led onto a stone porch that encompassed the entire length of the mansion. Beyond it, a manicured lawn sprawled in all directions, the smell of fresh flowers in the air.

On either side of the porch, teams of servants manned their stations. To the right a large buffet was spread out, across from it an extensive selection of wines and champagnes from around the world. Waiters in pressed white uniforms moved throughout the grounds, offering hors d’oeuvres and relieving guests of any unwanted dishes.

Among them was Ling, Gold watching as he slipped amongst them without attracting so much as a second glance.

The crowd was comprised of over fifty people, many of them wives and children of men associated with the project. All were dressed in their outdoor finest, sundresses and sports coats, a festive mood in the air.

Using an automated joystick, Gold rolled to his computer and made one final check of everything. Content that all was in order, he shrugged on his dinner jacket and took his private elevator down a floor to find Jasper waiting for him. Once there, he disengaged his onboard motor and coasted to a stop just as Jasper grabbed the handles and pushed him forward.

Together the duo emerged from the house onto the veranda, the bright afternoon sun washing over them. Several heads turned at the sight of the pair, Gold in his wheelchair and Jasper in his trademark aloha shirt, the garish red and gold a stark contrast from those around him.

Many of the people there, despite being business associates, had never seen Gold in person. Several cast sideways glances as he accepted a glass of wine from a servant, careful not to stare as he passed by.

The first person brave enough to approach Gold was Ling, offering a sampling from his tray. He bent low as Gold pretended to peruse the options and said, “It appears everyone has agreed to your terms. None of the men are carrying weapons and my men report that they have heard nothing suspicious over the lines.”

“How many listening devices are in place?” Gold asked, his hand poised above the tray, pretending to be choosing carefully.

“Over three hundred,” Ling replied. “Hidden in every tray, restroom, and plant on the grounds.”

“Good,” Gold said. “And in the conference room?”

“Same. There isn’t an inch of dead air space in there.”

“Excellent,” Gold said, accepting a crab cake from the tray, the unspoken gesture that it was time for Ling to move away.

Unable to join the guests on the lawn, Gold used the opportunity to remain on the porch and survey everyone present. He recognized many of the men from prior business arrangements and the rest from meticulous study of known photographs.

The wives and children he couldn’t have cared less about.

The reception lasted well over an hour, until the sun began to slide down in the western sky. Once it did, an ice sculptor appeared on the lawn and began to give a demonstration, the predetermined signal that the business of the evening was about to begin.

Recognizing the cue, the wives began to shuffle their children toward the display, their husbands lingering behind before drifting toward the house.

Inside, a series of staff in matching black suits directed them through the mansion to a large conference room in the eastern wing. Sparsely decorated, it featured a resplendent cherry table and matching armchairs with a modest spread of refreshments along the back wall. There were no nametags or assigned seats and as the men entered they took up posts in various places around the table, each angling for the optimal power position.

Gold watched the men enter from the security room down the hall, Ling by his side. Tucked away behind the kitchen, the space was dominated by a half dozen monitors displaying feedback in black and white from cameras hidden around the room. The audio was turned on as well, though the only sounds heard were the occasional scraping of a chair against the polished wood floor.

When the last of the seats was occupied, Gold maneuvered his chair into the hallway where he was joined by Jasper. He allowed himself to be wheeled into the conference room and positioned at the head of the table before Jasper retreated and closed the door behind him.

An oversized smile in place, Gold sat at the head of the table and surveyed everyone before him. Present were a dozen of the most powerful – if unknown – people in the world. They ranged in age from early forties to late seventies and represented more than a handful of countries.

Each met his gaze with equal parts intensity and curiosity, as eager to be in his company as he was theirs.

“Gentlemen, thank you all so much for making the journey here this evening,” Gold began. “I know many of us have been in communication for some time now, but it is nice to finally set aside the veil of technology.”

A few heads nodded around the table, though all remained silent.

“I know you are all busy men, some with very tight travel schedules, so I promise to be as brief as thoroughness will allow. We have been hard at this for quite some time and to short shift ourselves due to petty time constraints would be truly unfortunate.”

On the desk before him was a short control panel, switches and buttons spread in two even lines, the entire thing encased in silver. Beginning on the far left, Gold pressed a single button, the shades on the outer wall immediately beginning a downward descent. Moving his hand just an inch to the right, he pushed a second button, the lights overhead dimming to near darkness.

Jumping to the bottom row on the panel, he flipped a switch, bringing a small projector down from the ceiling. It threw a blue square on the wall behind Gold as he shifted his chair to the side, turning so he could face both the screen and the table.

He sat in silence, the men before him waiting in kind, as an image of Earth turning on its axis appeared on the screen.

“Many of us go back a long ways, while others we are meeting for the first time,” Gold said, forcing his voice to sound warm and welcoming. “For those of us reuniting again, I extend heartfelt gladness at seeing you alive and well. I cannot begin to tell you how overjoyed I am that we are able to see the imminent culmination of a work many decades in the making.

“To those here for the first time, my sincerest apologies for your loss. The fact that you have decided to pick up their life’s work and join us speaks volume to both your families and to the task we have at hand.”

In the darkness, Gold could see a few heads bobbing, hear a few grunts of agreement. Ignoring them, he moved along to the third button on the top row, the image onscreen rotating to display North America, a blinking red light settling over the city of Boston.

“I apologize for working without full disclosure these recent months but with such an impending launch date, we have been forced to maximize security in every way. Any one of us in this room could be under surveillance and until now, transcontinental communication was too risky.

“I promise, that ends here.”

Without waiting for a response of any kind he pushed forward, the speech one he had committed to memory days before. “The dot you see here is Boston, Massachusetts. Many of you flew over it just hours before, some of you may have even landed there. Its importance to us is that it houses one of the busiest ports on the eastern United States seaboard.”

Gold pressed another button and a myriad of blue lines ran from Boston out to the rest of the world. “These lines represent every course of transit that originates in Boston. In any given week, over one hundred countries on six continents receive goods from these docks.”

A second press of the same button brought scads of red lines, interspersing throughout the blue, covering the United States like veins on a forearm. “Here you have the transportation routes for goods once they enter the United States. Routes that cover all forty-eight lower states and eventually reach Alaska and Hawaii as well.

“In total, they connect every major city in the country.”

There were few things Bern Gold despised more than wanton displays of unnecessary flash, though he had long ago conceded their necessity in his work. Nothing appealed to business partners better than the illusion of preparedness, and nothing seemed to provide it better than an excessive display of bells and whistles.

His jaw clenched, he moved to the next button in the row, the map on screen shifting from the United States to Western Europe.

“Liverpool, England,” Gold said, speeding up the process, pressing the button twice more in succession. “As Boston is to America, Liverpool is to England.”

As he spoke, the same red and blue lines snaked away from Liverpool, scattering toward every corner of the world.

One by one, Gold outlined the same approach for Marseilles, France; Genoa, Italy; Vladivostok, Russia; and Nagasaki, Japan. By the time he was done, he could barely contain his disdain for the tedium of the process, even more so for the growing anticipation of the men around him.

One last time Gold pulled the screen back to the image of the spinning globe before zeroing in on a particular destination. “And the one we’ve been waiting on. Hamburg, Germany.”

A low murmur went up around the table, followed by rapt silence as every man stared at the routes connecting Germany to the world.

“Until this point, many of you have only known that your task was to secure ports in these particular cities. You all did as was asked of you without question or hesitation and for that, we thank you.

“Tonight, you learn why this task was of such grave importance.”

Moving to the last button in the row, Gold pressed it, the map behind him disintegrating. In its place appeared the image of a large shrub, bell-shaped flowers hanging from its limbs. The entire depiction cast of red and green, it threw a new hue over the room, everything much brighter than just a moment before.

Brugmansia, more commonly known in its native Chile as Angel Trumpet,” Gold said, reciting the information from memory without turning to look at the screen. “Very rare, the plant is common in the Andes Mountains and nowhere else in the world.”

He paused just briefly, watching as the men listened, their faces held in wonder at what they saw.

“Though beautiful in appearance and found in a wide variety of colors, every part of the plant is toxic. Reported effects of ingestion have been known to cause tachycardia, rapid onset cycloplegia, visual and auditory hallucinations, and death.”

As Gold spoke, he depressed the button repeatedly, each condition he mentioned having a corresponding picture of someone suffering the same effect.

“The locals first discovered Brugmansia centuries ago when villagers would use the flowers as edible garnishes for feasts. Within hours, many would fall prey to horrific hallucinations, ultimately passing from the heart attacks or strokes they brought on.”

The next depiction to appear on screen was of a woven wall hanging, the background material for it a faded white, the entire piece stretching ten feet square. On it was sewn a scene of fire sweeping down a mountainside, a fearful village below.

“For years thereafter, the indigenous peoples of the Andes avoided the plant, fearing the hallucinogenic effects it produced. They stripped away the trees from within their villages and piled them high in the mountains where they would be a threat no longer.”

Another depression of the button zoomed closer on the hanging, the images sewed thereon coming into focus.

“In 1643, Spanish missionaries reported spotting a great fire in the Andes. Started by a rouge lightning strike, the enormous pile of dried Brugmansia was set ablaze, fire sweeping down from the high country and destroying enormous swaths of forest. The flames burned for over a week, but never touched the villages of Cristas or Sanuel.

“When the fire finally ceased, the missionaries went to the mountains to offer aid to those villages but when they arrived they found every last man, woman, child, and animal dead.

“No blood, no signs of struggle.”

Gold changed the image from the wall hanging to a computer generated rendering of the scene, the vibrant colors of it setting the room to glowing, a stark contrast to just a moment before.

“Research has determined that when the heat from the fire swept down the mountainside, it vaporized vast quantities of the plant. Once the particles of the toxin entered the atmosphere, they were carried by the wind down the mountainside into the villages below.

“Unaware of any danger, the people went about their lives, breathing in the toxin,” Gold continued, clicking to another slide, “and were dead within hours. By the time the missionaries arrived, the threat had dissipated into the atmosphere, taking the lives of every villager with it.”

Gold clicked ahead to the next slide, aware that he held the complete attention of every person present. That look, that complete command of their attention, was the largest reason why he had called the meeting in the first place. Beyond just drawing the men in the room out, allowing himself to get a feel for them, to read each one in person, he wanted the satisfaction of seeing their awe. This was a plan he had spent years, decades, putting together, and it demanded to be appreciated as such.

The refracted color scheme of the room changed again as behind him the image switched to a complex molecular helix, the entire thing rotating on a three dimensional plane.

“This is the basic formation of Brugmansia in a solid state. Fairly stable, the side effects mentioned still occur, though in a much weaker manner. Most deaths that happen after ingestion are caused by stress-induced heart attack or seizure.”

The next slide showed a slightly skewed depiction of the molecule, replacing the smooth interior portion with a realigned center featuring two irregular pairings. “This is Brugmansia in vapor form. When breathed in, the mutation shown here is very volatile and has a kill rate of 100%.”

He paused as a few men drew in sharp breaths, a few others nodding in approval. Once he was certain every last one had grasped the enormity of what he’d just told them, he flipped the first switch off, the overhead projector receding into the ceiling. At the same time the window blinds rose halfway, late day sun illuminating the room.

“So, what does this mean for us?” Gold asked, positioning himself back at the head of the table. Using the bridge of his knuckles, he rapped three times on the hardwood before him, the sound echoing through the room.

A moment later Jasper appeared, a small silver box in hand.

“Thank you, Jasper,” Gold said, accepting the implement and extending it out in front of himself, his servant disappearing from the room without a sound.

“A team of elite scientists has been hard at work for some time now developing the optimal way to weaponize Brugmansia,” Gold said, moving it in a slow semi-circle, allowing for everyone to take a long look at his shiny new toy. Once the display was over, he extracted a remote detonator from the inside flap of his jacket and depressed the button on it.

In response a red light began flashing atop the box, a low grinding sound beginning to emit from within.

“We call it quite simply The Vaporizer, a reference more to what it does to human life than to its effects on the Brugmansia found within. Remotely accessed, units can be activated from anywhere in the world and can be synchronized with any or all other active Vaporizers,” Gold said, his voice and demeanor belying no small amount of pleasure at the growing discomfort before him.

“The process begins with what you’re hearing right now, the grinding phase. Brugmansia is too unstable to ship in anything but a solid form, so it is packaged as a bundle of dried leaves and flower buds. Right now, we have over a dozen greenhouses producing enough to more than supply our needs.”

Placing the box down on the table, Gold slid it a few feet away, the smooth metal gliding along the wooden tabletop.

“The Vaporizer begins by grinding the bundles into a fine dust,” Gold said as the grinding halted and a low hissing sound was heard.

“Next, the powder is dissolved in water and superheated.”

Apprehension grew as a few of the men sat up high in their chairs, furtive glances exchanged amongst them.

“Then…” Gold said, letting his words trail off as a thin white vapor burst from a spout along the side of the box, a cone of fine dust spraying across the table, some of it dissolving into the air instantly.

A few men gasped as it did so, others recoiling in terror, the sounds of their fear ringing out as they covered their faces with the lapels of their coats.

At the head of the table Gold sat with an amused expression on his face, making no effort to pull back or cover his face. He waited as the men continued to squirm, nobody wanting to be the first to visibly break, before ending their misery.

“For the purposes of this demonstration, we used dried leaves from a maple tree out back,” Gold said, shutting the machine down with a flippant push of a button, his voice relaying good humor. “We wanted to show an accurate depiction of how The Vaporizer works and it was the safest alternative.”

A small ripple of laughter went up around the table and a few even applauded. Genuine relief flooded the features of all.

“The day we have been waiting for is near,” Gold said, the end of his performance growing close, his body aching to finish it. “It has been a long time in coming and I thank you for being so patient and working so hard to see it through.

“Once we adjourn here, each of you will return home and make sure every detail is ready in your location. You will all receive instructions within the week telling you when to expect your Vaporizers to arrive.”

Out on the veranda, a jazz band began to play, their directions relayed from Ling, watching everything nearby. At the sound of the musical cue Gold put on his best smile, his voice rising to that of an emcee wrapping things up for the evening.

“I invite all of you to stay and enjoy the evening here with us. Dance with your wives, laugh with your children, socialize with your colleagues. Enjoy yourselves, for Liberation Day is near!”

The room in unison rose to its feet and applauded, many cheering. They stayed doing so for several long minutes, smiling between one another, shaking hands and clasping each other on the back.

For the briefest of moments, seated alone at the head of the table, Gold even allowed himself to smile right along with them.

Chapter Twenty-Six

 

 

Thorn fingered the four fiber-optic cameras in his pocket as he and his new partner Sean Kelley made their first round of the night. His mind was preoccupied with finding the optimal positions to place the cameras, a task made tougher by Kelley’s incessant rambling. Having a couple of years on Thorn and wearing a few scars across his face gave him a sense of self-importance that was already beginning to wear thin.

If stacked up side by side, Kelley didn’t hold a candle to the life experience Thorn had accumulated, despite the truncated time table he was working with. As it were though, he was forced into the assumed identity of Robert Myers, a man that somehow managed to do even less than Kelley.

Together they walked the length of the first two piers, checking locks and tie-downs, ticking things off their list. As they rounded a corner and turned down the third pier, Thorn kept a sharp eye out for the container he knew to be tucked away nearby. Stenciled with 081-4592 across it in foot-tall white letters, he spotted what he was looking for just off the end of the dock, in quick order determining the best vantage points for the cameras. Once chosen, he waited for Kelley to immerse himself in another story before stopping, bending at the waist and pretending to tie his shoe.

Kelley continued a few steps beyond before realizing he was alone and turning to wait for Thorn.

“You can go on ahead,” Thorn said, “I’ll catch up in a minute.”

“No worries, I’ll wait,” Kelley replied, pushing forward with his tale of women and booze, giving off the distinct impression that it wasn’t every day that he had a captive audience and he wasn’t about to let it go freely.

Cursing under his breath, Thorn finished tying his shoe, a new plan forming in his mind. Slipping his company cell phone from his pocket, he sat it out on the concrete beside him and as he stood, nudged it off to the side with the toe of his boot.

The small black square skittered off with nothing more than a slight scrape of plastic against concrete, Kelley never once glancing in its direction.

Rejoining his chattering coworker, Thorn walked the length of the pier and as they headed for the fourth, made a show of patting his pockets. “Damn it, I must have dropped my phone when I bent over to tie my shoe.”

“You want me to wait for you?” Kelley asked, a tiny bit of annoyance creeping in.

“Naw, you go on ahead. I’ll run grab it and meet you on Four.”

“All right then,” Kelley said and drifted away into the darkness, not putting up the slightest bit of resistance.

Turning on his heel, Thorn jogged back in the opposite direction, pausing to ensure Kelley was out of sight.

Every movement he made was being recorded by the cameras above, a fact that forced him to act as natural as possible. Starting on the far side of the pier, he bent beside a tie-down, pressing the camera into place, giving the impression to anybody who might be watching that he was searching for his phone.

Using the same ruse, he worked a slow circle around the entire end of the pier, selecting a security light and a nearby container both to provide wide angle shots. The last camera he placed on the lock of the container itself, hoping for a direct shot of an intruder’s face.

Once all four were in place, Thorn inched his personal cell phone out of his pocket and checked to make sure the feeds were all up and active before stowing it away. Making a show of looking from side to side, he picked his way back up the pier and retrieved the oversized work phone from the ground, wiping it clean, making sure it was seen by the camera on high.

Only then did he jog back the length of the pier and join Kelley on Four.

“Took you awhile, huh?” Kelley asked as Thorn approached.

“Couldn’t find it, must have kicked it,” Thorn lied.

Kelley clapped him on the back and laughed, a deep booming sound that erupted from his diaphragm. “Last time I did that, the damn thing ended up swimming in the harbor!”

Thorn couldn’t help but laugh in return as together they headed back to the guard station.

Chapter Twenty-Seven

 

 

Two things both roiled inside of Thorn’s mind, turning his mood sour.

The first was the complete lack of any progress the night before. Despite his placing the cameras just after dark and leaving them there until morning, not one thing appeared to be out of order. Even with Kelley never giving him more than a few feet of space, he was able to sneak off several times, checking his phone, making sure that everything was clear.

As best he could tell, not one thing moved the entire night.

While that fact did give him some information, it also left a lot blank.

The second thing that had him fighting to maintain a straight face was the lecture Billy Turner had seemed intent on giving him since the moment his Duesenberg picked Thorn up outside the docks. Focused entirely on proper dinner etiquette, he had gone through everything from the correct silverware to use to the way a napkin was to be placed in his lap, all in excruciating detail. At the end of each mini-lesson, he again pointed out that Thorn was not only representing himself but the entire Irish conglomerate.

If he noticed the grated teeth or eye rolls Thorn responded with beside him, he did nothing to show it.

Fighting to hold his tongue, Thorn stared out the passenger window, thankful that thin evening traffic cut their journey to just twelve minutes. Pulling up in front of La Rosa Negra, the big car idled as they climbed out and stood on the sidewalk, not pulling away until they were headed for the door.

A slight tinge of agitation seemed to roll off Turner as they walked, Thorn making a point to say as little as possible.

The front entrance of La Rosa Negra opened into a small buffer room with warm woods and heavy fabrics hanging from the wall, the sound of muted music in the air. Moving forward, they passed through a veil and were greeted by an explosion of colors and sounds that was everything Thorn imagined Cuba to be.

Bold and vibrant hues adorned the floors and walls. Attractive waitresses with dark hair and large smiles shuffled food back and forth as a brass band played upbeat music. Rich smells hung thick in the air and great bursts of laughter could be heard around the room.

“Guy doesn’t mess around, does he?” Turner asked, half-smiling at the genuine astonishment on Thorn’s face.

“No, he does not,” Thorn agreed, already wondering how he had not heard about the place before.

Interrupting the thought, a young lady in a red and yellow dress that hung off the shoulder and ended in a spinning skirt approached, a smile on her face. “Mr. Turner, Mr. Myers, my name is Maria and I’ll be waiting on you gentlemen this evening. If you will please follow me, Mr. Cardoza has arranged for a private room in the back.”

Spinning around, the hem of her skirt twirling about her, she led them to another veiled doorway along the back wall. There she pulled back the fabric and stepped aside for them to enter, dropping it in their wake as the sounds from the main hall receded to muted tones.

The room was a smaller version of the one before, the same color scheme and atmosphere filling the space. It looked as if it could hold ten or more tables, though only a single one sat in the center of the open floor. It was not more than five feet across with four chairs placed around it, elegant flatware already in place.

Cardoza rose as they entered and shook Turner’s hand. “Thank you so much for honoring me with your presence.”

“The honor is ours,” Turner said. “Thank you very much for inviting us. This is the young man you asked to see, Robert Myers.”

Thorn stepped around the table and accepted Cardoza’s outstretched hand. The grip was strong and Thorn returned it with equal, but not overbearing, strength.

“I like that,” Cardoza said, glancing at the shake and smiling. “A man that is comfortable enough with who he is to have a firm shake, but comfortable enough with where he is to know not to overdo it.”

A small smile crossed Thorn’s lips. “Thank you very much for having us here this evening. A fine reputation precedes you and is well deserved.”

A second man with dark hair combed straight back rose from the chair beside Cardoza and extended his hand to Thorn. “Marc Tallo. You did us all a service at the docks two nights ago.”

“Mr. Tallo, it is a pleasure,” Thorn responded, shaking his hand as well, the man’s skin feeling chalky, his grasp weak.

“Please, let’s be seated,” Cardoza said, extending a hand toward the table. As one, all four settled into their chairs as Maria circled, pouring red wine for each of them.

A moment later, she brought out a platter of appetizers.

Cardoza watched as she did so, leaning back and looping his left arm over his chair. “Tonight, we shall be served a simple meal that I believe you will find quite tasty. Some of our dishes tend to appeal to more discerning palates, but this particular meal should entice without offending any stomachs. Before us are chicken empanadas; please help yourself.”

Turner cast a glance to Thorn and reached out toward the platter, sliding one of the flaky pastries over onto his plate. Opposite him, Tallo did the same.

From across the table Cardoza watched, a shadow of concern passing over his face. “Do you not like empanadas, Mr. Myers?”

“Oh, very much,” Thorn replied. “But where I come from, it is impolite to eat before the host.”

Cardoza boomed with laughter. “Please, tonight do not think of me as your host. You have done me a service and I am here to thank you for it. Please, eat freely.”

Thorn did as instructed, eating with aplomb as the conversation around him was light, non-abrasive. For the most part he remained on the periphery of it, answering a few direct questions, but using the meal as his source of preoccupation. The main course of bistec de palomilla and tostones was nothing short of incredible, as were the beans and rice piled high on the side.

By the time flan and cafecito were served for dessert, his core ached from being overfilled, only his pride willing him to finish.

Once the meal was completed and the dishes cleared away Maria melted from the room, the faces around the table turning somber. Leaning forward against the table, Cardoza laced his fingers together, glancing at each of the men in turn before settling his gaze on Thorn.

“I understand you were the one that went into the water the other night,” he opened, his expression so solemn Thorn couldn’t tell if he should affirm or deny. For a moment he met the gaze before dipping the top of his head in a nod, no sound crossing his lips.

Matching the nod, Cardoza said, “You saved many of my people, risked your life in the process. I am indebted.”

Again Thorn nodded, choosing to remain silent. In his periphery he could sense Turner and Tallo both staring at him, their gazes hot on his skin.

“I am indebted, and I am curious,” Cardoza said. “You don’t know these people and at the time you didn’t know me.”

He left the statement intentionally vague, allowing Thorn to answer from any angle he chose.

The truth was, every action Thorn had employed was based on muscle memory, a conditioned response from his time in the service. His training had honed his body to always err on the side of aggression, to choose fight over flight every time.

Not one word of that could be shared with the people before him, though. As far as Turner knew, he was a guy from upstate New York, fresh off the farm. He doubted the others knew even that much.

Putting the huckster routine back on, he exhaled slowly and said, “Truth is, it was the voices. I got there just as the container was being lifted into the air and the sound of those people, the fear they felt…”

Much like Cardoza, he left his statement open-ended, allowing the men before him to extrapolate what they might.

On his right, Turner continued to stare at him, though Thorn forced himself to remain focused forward. To his left, Tallo nodded, glancing between the two sides.

Across from him Cardoza matched his look, his forehead dipping just a fraction of an inch. “You seem to have a sense of almost sadness about you as you say this.”

Raising his eyebrows in concession, Thorn nodded. “Had I not gone in, more people would have died. Had I stayed on the pier, perhaps my partner would be alive.”

Silence fell around the table, each of the men chewing on what had just been shared.

To the left, Tallo sipped at his cafecito, his slurps audible over the sound in the adjacent room. “I had no idea your men have continued to be under attack, Billy. How many is this now?”

“All told?” Turner said, his voice low, even. “Half a dozen.”

“Not to offend you,” Cardoza asked, “but do you need help on the docks?”

Thorn cast a sideways glance to see Turner’s face solidify a tiny bit, the skin around his eyes drawing tight. “No, but thank you. We have upped personnel and implemented extra measures.”

Approving of the answer, Cardoza nodded, looking from Turner to Thorn and back again. “Tomorrow night I have a very important shipment arriving. I cannot afford to have anything happen to it.”

“We’ll see to it everything is in order,” Turner said.

“Associates of some very well connected people are on board this shipment,” Cardoza said, again passing a look between the two men across from.

“I understand,” Turner said, matching the gaze.

“Also,” Cardoza said, lifting his cafecito and raising it to Thorn, “I know it is far too soon for me to be requesting favors, but I would appreciate it if you were there.”

Before Thorn could respond, Turner said, “He’ll be there. I haven’t checked the schedule, but I have a feeling he’s on it.”

Chapter Twenty-Eight

 

 

Abby was asleep in the exact same spot she’d been in four hours earlier when Thorn returned. Her oversized eyes split open and her backside nudged itself to and fro in greeting at the sight of him, but no part of her fleshy body raised itself from the couch.

Cracking a smile, Thorn shrugged off the blazer he was wearing and dropped it over the back of a dining room chair. “Give me ten minutes, girl,” he called out, unbuttoning the cuffs of his sleeves and rolling them to the elbow.

Opening up the laptop residing on the island in the middle of his kitchen, he pulled the video conference system to life and dialed.

The line rang three times before being picked up, Ingram on the other side, a trace of irritation in his voice. “Talk to me.”

Thorn leaned in and rested his palms on the counter, glancing at the glowing digital clock on the stove reading it was nudging eleven.

“Sorry for the late call. Just got in.”

“So you had dinner at Cardoza’s?” Ingram asked, ignoring the apology.

For a moment, Thorn thought of pointing out that every other time they’d spoken recently was early in the morning, before he’d been to bed at all, but opted not to comment. The odds were nothing good could come from it.

“I did. Cardoza said he wanted to meet and thank me for what happened the other night.”

“Tallo there?”

“He was,” Thorn said, still leaning forward over the edge of the counter, giving an oversized nod. “He was pretty quiet, seemed like he was invited more to keep up appearances than anything.”

The same tinge of irritation was still obvious as Ingram nodded. “Interesting. Anything useful?”

A feeling mixed of amusement and chagrin arose within Thorn, but again he kept it tamped down, forcing an impending smile away from his face. The hour was nowhere near late enough to earn any enmity, meaning his call must have interrupted some sort of late night endeavors.

Again he had to fight to keep down a smile.

“Oh, yeah,” Thorn said. “After the cars didn’t attract attention, I was wondering what to try next. Cardoza answered that for us.”

The tiny bit of annoyance fled from Ingram’s features, replaced by realization. He nodded slowly, his jaw working up and down as he processed. “There’s another container coming in.”

“Tomorrow night,” Thorn confirmed.

Any remaining bits of animosity were completely gone from Ingram as he stared back at Thorn. ”Are we ready?”

“We will be,” Thorn replied. “Can you get me a few things before then?”

Reaching out in front of him, Ingram pulled a pad and pen onto his lap. “What do you need?”

“What do we have in the way of tracking devices?”

Ingram’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch, his gaze rising to stare into the camera. “Tracking devices? What do you have in mind?”

“Small, but strong enough to cover a fairly large radius.”

“How small? And how large a radius?”

The left side of Thorn’s face scrunched as he wagged his head in a non-committal gesture. ”Small enough I can plant it on them without it being noticed. A large enough area to monitor wherever they go afterwards.”

Setting aside his pad, Ingram went to work on the keyboard in front of him. “You want something you can press on their person?”

“No,” Thorn replied. “That can be removed. I was thinking more of tagging them.”

Ingram’s hands stopped mid-air, floating above the keyboard. “Tagging…as in, internally?”

“As in internally.”

A trace of surprise crossed Ingram’s face, his head rocking back an inch. “You’ve done this before haven’t you?”

Thorn met his gaze a moment before glancing away, Abby’s moist eyes shining in the darkened living room. “More than once.”

He remained focused toward the opposite room, hoping his boss got the message. What he had done before, what he intended to do in the near future, weren’t things he was terribly proud of. That didn’t change the fact that they had to be done, just that they didn’t need to be rehashed at length.

“I shipped the image you sent me to our tech guys to see what they could do with it,” Ingram said, picking up the insinuation, drawing Thorn’s gaze back to the screen. “I’m emailing it over to you now.”

Using a wireless mouse, Thorn dropped Ingram’s face away from the screen and pulled up the incoming file. It was based on the image he had pulled from the surveillance camera, a digital rendition filling in all the missing portions.

Even with that, and the resolution enhanced, it still made for a rather generic composite.

“Our database returned nothing, which isn’t that surprising,” Ingram said. “Off the books henchman, could be anyone.”

Thorn shook his head, staring at the image. He had yet to see the man in person, but was fast becoming familiar with his handiwork. “I don’t think this guy is a run-of-the-mill henchman. More like a soldier of fortune.”

His face still minimized from the screen, Ingram said, “As you can see, he’s clearly of Asian ancestry, most likely Chinese. I’ve already started inroads into our contacts there, but so far nothing.”

Thorn remained silent, trying to think back a few nights before, to jar something loose, some sighting of the man that he hadn’t realized before.

As best he could tell, there was nothing there.

“You recognize the guy at all?” Ingram asked, as if seeing the internal monologue playing across Thorn’s face.

Shaking his head, Thorn minimized the picture, Ingram’s face replacing it on screen. “No. Not to sound like a racial bigot, but he looks like most every other Chinese man I’ve ever seen.”

Ingram snorted back a laugh. “I said the exact same thing.”

Silence fell between them a moment before Thorn pushed himself to full height, clapping his hands together in front of him. “With that, I think I might actually get some sleep tonight.”

“Have fun with that,” Ingram said. “I’ll have those devices to you early tomorrow.”

“Sounds good. And be on standby tomorrow night if you can. If I’m able to get them planted, I’ll need you to be my eyes on them.”

“I’ll be here.”

“Thanks, Coach,” Thorn said, the right half of his mouth twitching upward. “And sorry about interrupting whatever I interrupted tonight.”

A rye look passed over Ingram’s face and for a moment Thorn thought for sure he was going to be on the receiving end of a middle finger. Just as fast it passed, Ingram signing off with a simple wave of the hand.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Thorn said, the smile growing full across his face.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

 

 

The bell above the door jingled twice as Thorn passed through, once upon opening, another as it closed behind him. In a Pavlovian response conditioned from years of experience, the aging barista behind the character looked up at him as he entered, the look on her face bordering on hopeful, praying that something unusual would present itself to break up the monotony.

Nodding once in her direction, Thorn shifted his attention away from her gaze, a bit of color flashing to his cheeks. For all the optimism she held behind the counter, he wasn’t there for a shot of liquid caffeine, didn’t intend to stay long.

“Well, if it’s not Thorn Byrd,” a voice said as he stood on the foyer, surveying his surroundings. “I’ll be damned, he is smarter than he looks.”

Drawing in a deep breath through his nose, Thorn let the ingested air lift his shoulders a few inches before dropping them down, turning to find Nio and Iggy seated together along the back wall. Both were dressed for the outdoors, jeans and pullovers, dark colors all around. Each had a coffee on the table in front of them, their beverages in to-go cups, lids already on.

“Wasn’t hard to find you,” Thorn said, weaving his way through a handful of tables, most of them sitting empty. “All I had to do was go to the closest corner, and here you are.”

Fire flashed behind Iggy’s eyes as she stared up at him, her right hand clenching into a fist atop her thigh. “I’m really starting to dislike you.”

“I’m aware,” Thorn said, his voice dismissive as he shifted his attention to Nio. “Can we talk?”

Using his foot, Nio pushed the chair between them out a few inches, motioning for Thorn to take it.

“Not here,” Thorn said, twisting his head to the side. “You guys up for a walk?”

A quick glance between them was the only reaction as they seemed to assent in unison, rising with their cups in hand at the same time. Heeding the cue, Thorn led them back out the front door, nobody saying anything as they crossed the street and headed away from the coffee shop.

The riddle, if it could even be deemed that, was easy enough to decipher. At the far end of the docks was a single coffee shop, the only place within walking distance that wasn’t owned by Dunkin Donuts or Starbucks. Despite having less than a week on the job, Thorn knew it was the place Nio was referring to, the other joints too conspicuous for them to spend much time at all.

“We missed you last night,” Nio said, his tone neither accusing nor condemning.

“Yeah, I had dinner plans,” Thorn said, leaving his answer open-ended.

“Poor girl,” Iggy commented, pretending to whisper, but making her voice loud enough to be heard.

Pulling in another deep breath, Thorn steered the group from the sidewalk onto a wide footpath running parallel to the harbor. He positioned himself along the bank, Nio beside him, Iggy on the far end.

“She always so pleasant?” Thorn asked, his voice hard, turning his head just slightly to look at Nio.

A smirk pulled the younger man’s head back a few inches, the right side of his mouth curled upward. “Clearly you haven’t spent much time around Cuban women. It’s when they are being nice that you really have to worry.”

A handful of barbs floated to Thorn’s mind as they walked on, each pointier than the one before. On another occasion he might have let them fly, but given his reasons for being there, he decided to pass.

“Cuban, huh?” Thorn said. “In that case you should know I had a business meeting last night at a restaurant called La Rosa Negra where they served bistec de palomilla, tostones, and flan. How was your evening?”

The comment did exactly as it was intended to, finding its target, hitting flesh without drawing blood. In the darkness he heard Iggy faux-whisper, “Really starting to dislike you,” a half smile pulling at his features.

“The reason for the meeting,” Thorn pressed on, skipping right past her comment, “was to go over the schedule for tonight.”

Beside him he could sense the Garcia’s both grow attentive, their body language becoming tense as they waited for him to continue. Raising his gaze, Thorn scanned the ground before them, finding it deserted. Digging his chin into his left shoulder he glanced back, noticing an older couple walking a hundred yards back, oblivious to the trio in front of them.

“Word is another container is set to arrive tonight,” Thorn said. “Which I’m taking to mean it’s here now, and he wants to make sure it is still here come morning.”

To his left he could sense both his companions casting glances at him, though he refrained from matching their looks.

“He?” Nio asked.

Thorn nodded, the response pure reflex. “Cat name Luis Cardoza. From what I could gather, he runs things for the Cuban operation here, owns La Rosa Negra.”

“Hmm,” Nio said, processing the information. “Name doesn’t ring a bell.”

“I’m not surprised,” Thorn said, recalling his encounter with the man the prior night. “I got the impression he’s not really the kind to be putting his face out there any more than necessary.”

He refrained from adding any additional comments about the line of work the man was in, knowing it would only offend, regardless of his intent.

“Okay, so a new shipment is here,” Iggy said. “You can’t really believe our father is on it.”

Thorn’s eyebrows tracked upwards on his forehead, the thought one that had not crossed his mind. “Not in the slightest, but I didn’t think that was the only point in you guys sticking around right now.”

“It’s not,” Nio inserted. “So you think there’s a chance something’s going to go down tonight?”

A long moment passed as Thorn aimed his attention out over the water, the lights of Boston behind them shimmering across its surface. In the air floated a pair of lazy gulls, the sound of their wings beating just audible in the silence.

“I don’t know,” Thorn said, “but if you’re serious about sticking around, I could use your help in monitoring it.”

Iggy started to comment, her words cut off by Nio, holding a hand out toward her, his attention still aimed at Thorn. “What did you have in mind?”

Once more rotating at the waist to cheek their tail, Thorn extracted his cell phone from his pocket and extended it to Nio. “One hour from now I will place four fiber optic cameras around the container, their live feeds running back into this phone.”

Nio accepted the device without comment, pocketing it away the moment it touched his palm.

“Last night I did a dry run, so I know the feeds work, but it was a pain in the ass trying to keep an active eye on it,” Thorn said. “Tonight, knowing there’s a live target on the ground, it would be helpful to have somebody watching full time.”

In front of them the trail split in half, extending out in a short loop before depositing travelers back the way they had come. Drifting to the right, Thorn pulled the others along with him, slowing his pace.

“How close do we need to be for it to work?” Nio asked.

“About a mile,” Thorn replied, the range nowhere near some of the things he had worked with in the past, but still sufficient for his purposes tonight. “I figured since you guys are spending so much time hanging around here at the moment, that shouldn’t be a problem.”

“It won’t be,” Nio confirmed.

“And what happens if we do see something?” Iggy asked. “We whisper into your super cool, high-tech earpiece or something?”

Another scowl flashed over Thorn’s face, just as fast disappearing, biting back the evoked response. “One of you will give me your phone. If you see something, you call me.”

The last of the trail stretched out a few feet before them, the brown dirt and gravel looping back in the opposite direction. Beyond it was a few feet of grass in front of a waist-high barrier, the ocean just below.

Thorn slowed his pace even more, drawing Nio and Iggy to a stop beside him. In the darkness, Nio extended a small black square his direction, Thorn accepting and tucking it away before shoving his hands in his pockets.

“I’ll meet you guys back at the coffee shop at seven,” he said. “If nothing transpires, we’ll swap phones back and be on our way.”

“And if it does?” Nio asked, standing just a few feet away, matching Thorn’s pose, his gaze aimed out to sea.

“Depends on what happens,” Thorn said, “but we’ll deal with it then.”

For the first time Iggy refrained from comment, the trio standing in silence before Thorn turned and headed back the way they’d just come, alone.

Chapter Thirty

 

 

Just as two nights before, Thorn and Sean Kelley walked the pier on their first round of the evening while full darkness settled in over Boston. Each of them carried an aging .44 strapped to their hip and a cheap clipboard in their hands.

“How’d the dinner go last night?” Kelley asked, the sound of their boots scraping the ground making for a steady cadence beneath them.

“Went real well. Place was nice, Cardoza seems like a good guy.”

“You say that like there’s a but coming,” Kelley said, casting him a sideways glance.

“Food was great last night, but man is it killing me today,” Thorn said. “I just can’t do that spicy stuff.”

The food the night before had not been spicy in the slightest. In his experience though, most people in the northern states couldn’t tell one Latin country from another, a majority he was willing to wager Kelley fell into.

“I bet,” Kelley said, throwing his head back, letting a belly laugh roll out. ”That’s why I stick with meat and potatoes. You give me any of that stuff, I might as well be sitting on the crapper when I eat it because it’s not staying in very long.”

A sharp laugh coughed out of Thorn, his face crinkled in mirth. The look remained on his face as they finished the first pier and started down the second.

As they walked, Thorn kept an eye out for the container in question. Cardoza had given them the freight number the night before and Turner had made a point of stacking others along either side and atop it.

The thinking by all parties was the extra presence of other containers nearby would make it impossible for a truck to push one off or for a crane to swing one free without having to move others.

Thorn spotted it sitting halfway down, the only one with others stacked high above or wedged in tight to either side. The odd formation of cargo made it an easy target to identify, sitting at the bottom of a makeshift pyramid, rising much higher than any of the others around it.

Casting sideways glances as they passed, Thorn checked for the best vantage points surrounding the container, fingering the fiber-optic cameras in his pocket. The awkward positioning of it made for placing all four impossible, his only hope that two would be enough.

Together they worked their way to the end of the dock and made the turn, coming back up in a slow and even gait. Twice more Thorn mentioned the Cuban food churning in his stomach and as they approached the container again, he made a quick dash for a wooden post along the edge of the pier. Normally used as a tie-off for docking ships, Thorn slid to a knee alongside it and dry heaved into the water below.

The sudden movement surprised Kelley, who stood rooted in place before throwing a hand over his own mouth and turning away. “Aw, hell. I’m sorry man, but I have to go on or I’ll get sick too.”

Without looking up Thorn waved Kelley off, continuing to heave as he pressed the camera against the post and stumbled to his feet. On shaky legs, he managed to get just past the container before doing the same thing next to a light pole.

Passing the back of his hand over his mouth, Thorn staggered his way back toward the main roadway, feeling Nio’s cell phone buzz against his thigh, the sign that the feeds were alive and active.

A moment later he rounded the corner of the pier to find Kelley waiting for him, bent at the waist, his face pale. “You alright?”

“Yeah,” Thorn managed, a grimace on his face. ”I’m cussing the entire nation of Cuba right now, but I’ll survive.”

Kelley bought the explanation with another chuckle and side by side they finished the round. An hour later they did the same.

A starless sky arrived with nightfall, an inky cloak blocking out all light from above. The temperature dropped several degrees and a light mist rose from the water. The combined effect did little to ease the growing apprehension within Thorn, anticipation growing for the attack he knew was coming.

Shortly before midnight, it did.

Thorn and Kelley were halfway through a discussion of the Patriots chances to repeat when Nio’s phone vibrated against his thigh. A moment later, a second buzz followed it. Sliding it out, Thorn saw a new text message from his phone number, pulling it up to find a single declarative statement.

We’ve got movement.

The three simple words sent an electric jolt through Thorn’s system, his body going rigid. Deep within him preprogrammed machinations seemed to transition into auto-pilot, awakening things he hadn’t used in years.

“What?” Kelley asked, sensing the shift in demeanor.

A grim glance was Thorn’s only response as he stepped out from the guardhouse and turned his body sideways in the soft night breeze.

“What is it?” Kelley asked again.

“You hear that?” Thorn asked, keeping his body poised, every nerve ending within him starting to dance with anticipation. As best he could tell there was no sound, nothing but the now familiar din of water lapping against the docks. Still he stood with his head cocked to the side, going through the motions, counting off the seconds.

An inquiry was coming in the morning and he had to play it out just long enough that Kelley and whoever may be watching over the cameras neither one suspected a thing.

“There it is again,” Thorn said, snapping his head toward the far end of the dock, pantomiming that he’d just picked up another distinct sound on the breeze. Across from him he could sense Kelley standing in complete confusion, trying to determine what had his partner so jumpy.

Counting out five more long seconds, Thorn took off at a dead sprint, leaving Kelley and the questions he was about to ask behind.

In the military, he had been trained to always move as a unit, to trust in the men beside him. That was easy at the time, given that many of the men he worked with had enlisted together, been by his side from the beginning.

Sean Kelley he had known less than a week. Nothing that had transpired in that time gave Thorn any indication that he was capable of handling himself in this sort of situation, the scars he seemed to find as a source of pride only confirming to Thorn the man’s ineptitude in a confrontation.

Already knowing where he was going, Thorn slowed his pace along the first pier just enough to gaze the length of it, confirming that all lights were on, no shadows were moving about. Once he was content that everything was clear he pushed himself back into a full run, covering the distance to the second pier in just ten seconds.

Fueled by adrenaline and a long-awaited awakening within, Thorn could feel his senses heighten. Droplets of sweat formed along his skin, his breathing leveling out, the entirety of his previous training returning in one fluid round of muscle memory.

Somewhere in the distance Thorn detected the sound of heavy footsteps, Kelley bumbling along behind him. Wanting to put as much distance between them as possible Thorn ducked behind the closest container and drew his weapon, wrapping his hand around the trigger guard, the hammer of it nestled against his palm. Content his weapon was secure, he continued straight past the container and dove headfirst into the harbor, the chilly water enveloping his body.

For a brief moment the icy jolt threatened to pull the air from him before the adrenaline pumping through him regained equilibrium. At once it became like he was back five years before, home in the water, at ease in the ocean.

Remaining submerged, he drew both hands into his chest and frog kicked his legs, propelling his body through the water. The gun in his hand made his right side lag a bit behind the left, his path veering a touch to the side. Ignoring it, Thorn kept himself well below the surface, covering as much ground as possible, each stroke bringing him closer to his target.

At one point Thorn had been able to hold his breath for ninety seconds. His lung capacity was now nowhere near what it had been, but he judged he was under for at least a full minute before emerging from the water. Careful to keep his movements slow and quiet, he raised the top of his head above the surface, water sluicing off his forehead and ears as air filled his lungs.

His efforts had taken him most of the way down the dock, the muted sounds of feet scraping against concrete and objects being bandied about finding his ears. Throttling down his pace, he continued in a simple front crawl stroke, watching as the misshapen pyramid of containers grew closer.

Despite the frigid Atlantic wrapped around him, Thorn could feel his body temperature rise as the sounds grew louder. Pushing out the last few strokes, he made his way to a rusted ladder of wrought iron rungs screwed directly into the side of the pier, hooking his left hand onto the top one and drawing himself up out of the water.

Emerging just a few inches at a time to ensure there was no loud splashing, Thorn lifted himself free of the ocean, the evening breeze touching his soaked exterior. A tiny shiver passed through him as he positioned both feet on the lip of the concrete and crept forward.

His heart rate increased just fractionally as he inched onward, the sound of footsteps growing closer. As he moved, he slid his grip on the gun from center mass to the barrel, holding it like a makeshift hammer.

The first intruder never so much as saw him, the gun crashing behind his ear before a sound could escape his lips. On contact, his entire form fell limp and crumpled to the ground, Thorn just catching him before he slammed back into the container. With one arm hooked beneath an armpit, he drug him in the direction he had just came from, tucking the man’s body behind the neighboring container.

Dropping to a knee, Thorn rolled the man to the side, finding the spot where the gun had connected. A thin tendril of blood extended down from the wound, moving in a jagged line through his short cropped hair before disappearing into the collar below.

Extracting the miniature tracking device Ingram had given him, he pushed it along the edge of the wound. No larger than a grain of rice, it slid beneath the scalp without opposition, disappearing from sight.

Leaving the man where he lay, Thorn took up his weapon and crept forward. Along the ground against the base of the container was a stack of what looked like brown paper packages, all of uniform size and shape.

“C4,” Thorn whispered, feeling his stomach tighten as he stared at the short pyramid. His previous experience with explosives was limited, but even at a glance it was clear to see there was enough present to send the container and the ones piled above it into the ocean.

Alternating glances between the pile and the pier beyond, Thorn weighed his options. From what he could see there was not yet a timer or cord attached, no way to detonate. It was obvious he had arrived in the middle of construction, the explosives still dangerous but not yet active.

The more pressing matter at the moment was whoever else might be nearby.

On one knee Thorn inched forward, peering out around the corner of the container. Ahead in the darkness he could see a single man moving toward the opposite end of the container, a stack of bricks in his hands matching the ones on the ground by Thorn’s feet.

Somewhere in the distance a sound resembling an engine idling purred along, though from his position he couldn’t be sure.

Reaching into his pants pocket Thorn removed Nio’s cell phone and flipped it open, hoping they could give him some detail on the situation he was facing. Water oozed from the implement as he held it in his hand and tried to shake it to life, the screen dark after his swim.

“Shit,” Thorn whispered, tucking the phone away and rising to his feet. With his shoulder pressed into the corner of the container, he once more scanned the pier for movement before springing from his hiding place. Keeping his back tight against the brown metal he stepped quickly to the opposite side, hearing the sound of explosives being stacked grow closer.

Once more he shifted the .44 into a bludgeon, slipping around the opposite end of the container without a sound.

This time he aimed directly for the man’s face, the silver butt of the gun glinting once as Thorn sent it hurtling down. The thick stock of the handle connected square with the exposed bridge of the man’s nose, shock just beginning to register on his features before the blow connected.

Heavy droplets of blood spatter cascaded across the ground, dotting the concrete and the tops of the brown packages as the man fell back. Thorn made no effort to catch him as he wilted into a misshapen heap, knowing full well that anybody else nearby had already seen him. Instead he shifted the gun into its intended position and turned back the opposite way, his body low and poised in a shooter’s stance.

To his surprise though, the gunfire that erupted was not from his weapon.

Chapter Thirty-One

 

 

Three shots pierced the night, all close by, all extremely loud. Thorn could tell just from the sound of them that they weren’t from a normal small sidearm, certainly weren’t being passed through a noise suppressor like the one seen on the surveillance video from a few nights before. Instead they were loud and heavy, distinctive barks through the quiet night air.

“Kelley,” Thorn whispered, listening as two slugs slammed into metal. The third caught the pavement nearby, a spark igniting on contact.

Not wanting to be a victim of friendly fire, and not trusting Kelley enough to tell the difference, Thorn remained rooted in place. He listened as a new voice drifted out toward him. None of the words spoken were English, the tone tense and non-negotiable.

A few seconds of silence passed, followed by another trio of shots. In their wake was the sound of work boots smacking against pavement, lumbering footsteps of someone growing closer.

“Robert, you alright?” Kelley called out, his voice close by, interspersed with heavy panting.

Peering out around the edge of the container, Thorn glimpsed Kelley bent at the waist, his head hanging down and his gun pressed along the side of his knee.

“Robert?” Kelley called again, his eyes screwed shut and his face contorted in pain as he stood to full height, his stomach pulling in and out, trying to catch his breath.

As much as Kelley was a target standing out in the middle, Thorn remained where he stood. His finger slid from around the outside guard of the trigger, ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

From the darkness on the opposite side of the pier emerged a single figure, his body wrapped in black, a fedora atop his head. He seemed to materialize from nowhere, crossing the open expanse of the pier in three quick steps. Before Thorn had a chance to react he was on Kelley, snapping a vicious kick into his ribs that sent him sprawling across the concrete.

The man took a step forward to continue his assault, pulling up short as Thorn stepped around the corner, gun in hand. In one fluid movement he hooked a hand under Kelley’s arm and drew him up, using his body as a human shield.

A pained gasp crawled from Kelley’s mouth as he swayed unevenly in place, the man holding him upright like a life-sized marionette. From where they stood the only thing that was even visible was his eyes, just peeking out beneath the brim of his fedora.

“Drop it,” the man said, his right hand extending up from beneath Kelley’s arm. In it was gripped his captive’s .44, the oversized weapon leveled at Thorn.

Five steps from the edge of the container, Thorn was completely exposed. There was no way he could get back to safety without being shot, no way he could cover the gap between them without being an open target.

“Drop it,” the man repeated, just the slightest hint of humor evident in the tone.

A dozen curses at Kelley and his situation flitted across Thorn’s mind as he assessed the situation. While he had no real loyalty to the man, he couldn’t let him get killed and he certainly couldn’t risk shooting him in hopes of getting his attacker.

Fighting against his every instinct, Thorn uncurled his fingers from the base of the gun, the weapon falling to the ground beside him. It landed with a sickening smack of metal against concrete, the sound only serving to drive home the point that he was exposed against a talented opponent.

Raising both hands by his side, Thorn stood and waited, trying to create a list of next moves, plotting out his reaction if the man opened fire.

To his surprise though, the man didn’t. Instead he shoved Kelley to the side, the much larger man falling to the ground, not to move again.

A thin smile grew across the man’s features as he turned the gun sideways in his hand, opening his fingers the way Thorn had and letting the gun fall to the ground.

In that moment, there was no doubt what came next. Thorn had no idea why the man was intent on a fight, no clue why he had tossed aside the weapon when victory was his, but it didn’t really matter. Whatever power imbalance that existed a moment before was now gone, Thorn back on the level.

If an altercation was what the man wanted, he would be happy to oblige.

Both men moved at once, the man opening the volley with a snap kick that just missed Thorn’s ear. Sliding to his left, Thorn shot out a quick jab, his knuckles knocking the fedora to the ground.

Swinging beneath the blow, the man fired a right hook that caught Thorn just beneath the eye.

Ignoring the sting of the shot, Thorn used the momentum of it to spin on the ball of his foot and swing a hard chop across the man’s jaw. The sound of solid contact filled his ears as the man stumbled back a few steps, shaking his head twice. He raised his right hand and used it to work his lower mandible from side to side, a look of disdain crossing his features.

A low grunt slid out of the man as he launched himself forward again, swinging a hard heel kick at Thorn’s head. Without thinking, Thorn dropped to a knee, feeling a rush of air pass him by as he smashed a palm strike at the man’s exposed knee.

Thorn heard a small click as the knee locked itself out, a single gasp rising from his opponent. In rapid fashion he drew his hand back to fire another, watching as his target seemed to disappear as a hard chop connected with his left ear.

A dull ringing settled in as a hint of cobwebs grew on the edge of his vision as Thorn spun up to his feet. For a moment both men took a step back, circling slowly, assessing one another. The man flexed his leg several times at the knee as he walked while Thorn shook away the gray fuzz.

After a full half minute both stopped, each intent to move forward again.

The man opposite him was just a bit quicker than Thorn, going in for another heel kick before pivoting on his foot and swinging a leg up high. Once more Thorn dropped down, anticipating the move, waiting for the man’s knee to become exposed again.

Halfway through the kick, just before the opening presented itself, the man paused and snapped his foot straight down. The heel of it connected square between Thorn’s brows, lights erupting in front of his eyes as a stream of blood shot down from his nostrils. It rolled straight down over his lips, the salty taste finding his tongue, as he rolled through the blow and came up on a knee, his hands at the ready in front of him.

Standing ten feet away, the man studied Thorn for a moment. His glare seemed to bore into Thorn, his face relaying he wanted nothing more than to continue, before he barked out a single command. From the darkness opposite them the two men Thorn had dispatched earlier appeared, both staggering past with their heads down.

In a span of no more than ten seconds all three melted from sight, Thorn rising to give chase, arriving on the opposite side of the pier just in time to hear an engine roar to life. Twin rooster tails rose from the harbor, a thick white wake churned up behind them as the boat circled wide, heading south.

“You alright, man?” Kelley asked, letting out a groan as he appeared beside Thorn, watching their intruders disappear into the night.

“Yeah,” Thorn muttered, his voice low. He could feel Kelley’s gaze looking him over, but to the man’s credit he didn’t comment.

“What the hell was all that?” Kelley wondered aloud.

A handful of responses came to Thorn’s mind, though he let them all pass in silence.

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

 

Ling stared out the side of the boat as it worked up the shore, replaying the events of the evening in his head. No matter how many angles he looked at it from, he couldn’t shake the feeling that somebody had set them up. The dock workers showing up within minutes of their arrival, the coordinated two man effort, was too much for him to swallow as coincidence.

The longer he dwelled on it, the angrier he became at the notion. Adding to his angst was the fact that his jaw throbbed and his knee was beginning to tighten.

With a stony demeanor, Ling watched as their destination drew near. Perched atop a sheer rock wall, the mansion looked like little more than hundreds of tiny shimmering lights. Levitating high above the ocean, it gave the impression of a celestial chandelier suspended on high.

Beside him the driver of the boat raised a radio to his lips, snapping out a short sequence of commands. The sound was just audible over the engine and the oncoming wind, Ling not bothering to try and decipher what was being said.

Up ahead, a large opening began to appear from the base of the rock wall, a gaping black hole in a vast gray wall. Painted and textured to fit seamlessly into the cliff, it looked like a giant piece of stone that opened straight up for them to enter, replacing itself as soon as they passed through.

Once the awning was back into place, orange fluorescent bulbs lit up alongside the boat, illuminating a path through the hidden marina. The lights bathed everything in a tangerine hue as the boat nudged forward, the idling engine pushing them past a line of speedboats and skiffs.

Less than two hours after departing, the boat slid back into the same spot it had previously occupied, a pair of guards materializing to tie them up as Ling hopped off. With determined strides, he made his way up the wooden walkway and on into the lower portion of the house, the scowl on his face earning him a wide berth from all who passed.

Fighting the urge to burst directly into Gold’s office, he stopped just outside the heavy curtain and rapped against the wooden door frame. Pushing loud, angry breaths out through his nose, he shuffled from side to side, waiting to be summoned.

“Come in, Ling.”

Ling pulled back the heavy curtain and stepped in to find Gold behind his desk, staring straight at him.

“It didn’t go well,” Gold said, more of a statement than a question.

“No.”

“They were waiting for us?”

Not sure how to answer, Ling chose to sidestep the question instead. “They definitely knew we were there.”

Gold furrowed his brow and motioned to an armchair across from him. “Please, sit.” He waited for Ling to do so and said, “Explain to me the difference between waiting for us and knowing we were there.”

“It wasn’t a complete ambush. They didn’t surround us the moment we pulled up, gave us a few minutes to begin unloading.”

Gold nodded, his face revealing nothing. “So what makes you say they knew we were there?”

“They knew how and when to show up. They waited until the men were busy, grabbed them while they were isolated.”

Once more Gold nodded. “They?”

The skin around Ling’s eyes tightened. He’d been dreading the question for a half hour now, knowing Gold would use the answer to bait him. “Two men. Same big guy as before, new lackey.”

“So they showed up before the charges could be set?”

“Yes.”

“Where are they now?”

Ling cast his eyes onto the desk beneath Gold. “We had to leave them behind.”

A moment of silence followed, Gold rocking his head back to peer at Ling. He raised his elbows to the arms of the chair and steepled his fingers, pursing his lips before him.

“That’s twice now this guy has gotten away from you.”

The sour taste of bile rose in the back of Ling’s throat, his teeth clamping down tight. His fingertips flashed white as he pressed them into his thighs, forcing himself not to lash out.

“It won’t happen again.”

Ling made no effort to hide the malevolence on his face or to mask the finality in his voice. He waited as it appeared that Gold would go beyond the unspoken and poke a bit further, but he remained silent.

There was no need to comment on the extra men that had been sent with Ling, no bother pointing out the limp he now walked with or the lump he could feel forming on his face.

“So the container, it remains in place?” Gold asked, moving on.

To this Ling said nothing, feeling his animosity grow even larger. “Let me go after them. Right now. I will take care of this.”

He shifted his gaze from the desk up to Gold, imploring him to give the directive.

The old man met his focus before shaking his head, his face solemn.

“We can’t afford the unnecessary attention right now. You know that.”

“There won’t be any attention,” Ling vowed. In his mind he could already envision how he would approach, employing many of the same tactics he’d used just a week before, leaving their bodies silent on the asphalt behind him.

“I’m sorry,” Gold repeated. “Right now, we can’t run the risk of it happening again.”

This time Ling didn’t bother pointing out that it wouldn’t happen again. Instead he rose and exited the room, neither side saying another word.

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

 

“We had just about given up on you.”

The words were said without condemnation, just a simple declarative sentence from Nio. He was positioned in the corner of the coffee shop, his back pressed against the wall. Just inches from his hand was a paper cup, the lid off and a red stirring straw lying across a napkin beside it.

Slouched in the chair to his right was Iggy, red lines striping her face. Coupled with crust encased in the corners of her eyes it was clear she had been asleep, blinking in rapid sequence to wake herself up.

“What time is it?” she asked.

“Almost nine,” Thorn muttered, pulling out the chair opposite them and falling down into it. He raised his chin toward the barista walking his way and said, “Iced tea, please.”

The young girl accepted the order with a nod, stopping halfway to the table and turning back for the counter.

“I thought you get off at seven?” Iggy asked, the insinuation in her voice clear.

“I do,” Thorn said, his voice relaying the exhaustion and frustration both roiling within. “Just spent the last two hours going over every detail of what happened last night.”

“Ugly?” Nio asked.

“Even worse,” Thorn said. “They acted like I was some sort of damn hero. Kept praising me for what happened.”

Iggy let out a low snort. “You? A hero?”

“And that’s bad?” Nio asked, cutting off the banter before it could go any further.

Turning to glance through the window at the morning foot traffic passing by, Thorn shook his head in disgust. “Getting patted on the back for having my ass handed to me? Yeah, that’s bad.”

The waitress appeared as Nio and Iggy exchanged a glance, dropping down a napkin and a clear glass of iced tea in front of Thorn.

“Thank you,” he whispered, taking up the sugar dispenser from the middle of the table and upending it, a steady stream of white granules falling into his drink.

“You know, we saw most of the fight,” Nio said. “Looked pretty damn even to us.”

Thorn swirled his drink twice to disseminate the sugar before taking a swig, the jolt of sugary caffeine sliding down easy. When he was done, he stared at each of them in turn, letting them see the small purple lump protruding beneath his left eye and the swollen rims of his nostrils. He waited further as they took in his busted lip.

“Jesus,” Iggy whispered, for a moment appearing as if she might reach out and touch his face.

Just as fast Thorn turned away, the look of sympathy on her features only heightening his mood. “Everybody got away,” he finally said, not bothering to point out the obvious. “That’s all that matters.”

Silence fell over the table as Thorn again shifted to focus out the window. He was exhausted and his body ached, but the venom within him was too strong to allow him to simply return home to bed. The next step was for him to circle back with Ingram, determine where the tracking device had led them.

From there he would ascertain his next steps.

Thorn took another long pull on the tea before leaning back in his chair and extracting Nio’s phone. He slid the implement across the table, the top of it already crusted with dried sea water.

“I’m sorry, but it got damaged when I went into the ocean last night. I’ll see to it we get you a new one straight away.”

Nio looked down at the item, though his face showed no display of being too upset about it. Instead he arched an eyebrow, an unspoken question on his face.

“I’ll tell them I busted the company phone and need to replace it,” Thorn said. “They won’t put up too much fight about a cell phone.”

Seeming to accept the explanation Nio nodded, sliding Thorn’s phone out and pushing it across the table.

“Thanks for trusting us to ride shotgun last night. Anything else we can do to help, let us know.”

Thorn took up the phone with one hand, lifting the glass and finishing the tea with the other. When the ice inside it fell against his lips he paused, drawing in the cool relief, before standing and placing a five on the table.

“You guys have my number if anything else comes up, right?”

Nio and Iggy both nodded, saying nothing.

“Alright,” Thorn said, looking at each of them in turn. “Sorry to run off like this. I don’t mean to be a dick, but…”

“Long night, lot happened,” Nio said, raising a hand. “We get it. Thanks for saving those people. That could have been nasty.”

Beside him Iggy stifled an eye roll, remaining silent.

A sour expression passed over Thorn’s face as he nodded again, turning for the door without another word.

Once he was gone, Iggy shifted her attention to her brother. “Thanks for letting us ride shotgun? What was that all about?”

Through the front windows Nio watched as Thorn crossed the street, heading toward the parking lot at the end of the docks. Once he was gone, a thin smile crossed Nio’s lips, just barely lifting the corner of his mouth.

“A half hour ago somebody texted his phone a set of coordinates. Remember last night when we saw him plant something on that first victim?”

Iggy stared at him as a look of realization passed over her features, her head rocking upward just a bit. “He’s tracking them.”

“Yep.”

“Any idea where to?”

“Not yet,” Nio said, “but it should be easy enough to figure out.”

In her seat Iggy leaned forward, folding her arms on the table in front of her. “And when we do?”

“Wouldn’t hurt to go take a look around, right?”

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

 

After four years together, Abby knew Thorn’s moods better than anybody. Her head rose from her seat on the couch and her backside quivered as he entered, both falling right back into place instantly.

“Hey girl,” Thorn mumbled, walking straight to the island in the kitchen and booting his computer to life. Choosing to stand, he rested both hands against the edge of the counter on either side of it, leaning forward as the video conference system came to life.

“Pick up, pick up,” he muttered, waiting as a second ring sounded out, followed by a third.

Just thirty seconds after arriving home he was connected, Ingram’s face staring back at him on the screen.

“Jesus. I thought you said it was a little altercation?”

No preamble, no introduction of any kind.

“It was,” Thorn said, lowering his face to look at the ground, offering Ingram a view of the top of his scalp.

“I’d hate to see the other guy right now.”

“He looks a helluva lot better than I do,” Thorn intoned, remaining bent over before raising his attention to look at Ingram. “So, what do you have?”

Ingram’s eyebrows raised a fraction of an inch, but he left it alone. “Did you get the coordinates I sent you this morning?”

Thorn glanced down to his phone still tucked into the front pocket of his jeans. He hadn’t bothered to open it since leaving the coffee shop, his mind too preoccupied on the drive home.

“I saw them,” he lied. “Where do they go?”

“I tracked them from the docks up the coastline to a point just south of Salem,” Ingram said, holding a sheaf of papers up in his hand, the profile of his face visible onscreen. “They stayed in the water the entire time, just off the shore. Traveled that way for the better part of an hour before the signal blinked out.”

“Blinked out?” Thorn asked, allowing his face to show his confusion.

“Blinked out,” Ingram repeated. “Meaning either they found the bug and destroyed it or they went somewhere where it could no longer transmit.”

A moment passed as Thorn considered the information, chewing at the inside of his cheek. “No way they just found it. I buried it in that guy’s head. They’d have to know it was there and go in after it.”

“That’s what I figured,” Ingram agreed.

“You said before it was pretty powerful. What does it take to block the signal?”

Ingram rifled through the papers, settling on one toward the back and pausing a moment to read from it. “The model is too powerful to be thrown off by a scrambler or EMF signal. They would have to be deep underground or somewhere that a signal couldn’t penetrate.”

“Such as?” Thorn asked.

“Something lined with lead, granite, or marble. That’s about it,” Ingram replied, dropping the papers onto his desk and turning to face forward.

Thorn ran a hand along the back of his head, feeling the bristles of his short hair against his palm. His head ached and his eyes were beginning to burn from exhaustion, though he forced the feelings aside.

“So we can either sit tight and hope the signal resurfaces…“ Thorn began.

“Or we can go check it out,” Ingram finished.

Thorn cast a look up at the screen, nodding in agreement. “Do we know anything about the place it disappeared? Is there anything there?”

Pushing the previous stack of papers aside, Ingram took up a legal pad, a splash of blue ink strewn across it. Onscreen Thorn couldn’t make out what it said, but could see it covered most of the page.

“I’ve been digging for a couple of hours now, will continue to do so. A property exists there, though it seems to be tied up under a mountain of false identities and corporate holdings.”

“Doesn’t exactly sound like something on the up-and-up,” Thorn said.

“Agreed.”

Both sides fell silent, each processing the new information.

“What about satellite imagery?” Thorn asked. “While you do that I can take a look around, see what I find?”

“I thought about that,” Ingram said, nodding. “This all came on so fast, we haven’t entered you into our visualization system yet. I sent it over to them first thing this morning, told them to fast track it.”

A deep scowl crossed Thorn’s face, the right half of his nose pulling up into a snarl. “And how long will that take?”

“Couple of hours,” Ingram said. “Once you’re active, a man named Steubin will call and walk you through everything.”

“And in the meantime?” Thorn asked. “Should I head up there and see what I find?”

“No,” Ingram said, pushing the directive out quickly. “We know they don’t move much during the day. Let’s wait until I figure some things out and you’ve had a chance to look around from the air.

“We’ll regroup this afternoon and decide then.”

There was a simple logic to the plan Thorn couldn’t argue with, no matter how much he wanted to. Already he could feel his stamina flagging, the sustained burn of adrenaline starting to wear off. He wasn’t sure if there was any way his racing mind would allow for sleep, but at the very least his body could gain some much needed rest.

“Try to get some sleep,” Ingram said, sensing what Thorn was thinking and moving the conversation ahead. “And put something on that eye, you can’t afford to have it closing up on you right now.”

The mention of the injury brought the scowl back to full effect. Thorn fought the urge to reach for his face, using his fingertips to assess the damage. Instead he extended his hand and shut the laptop, ending the conversation without signing off.

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

 

Two oversized monitors comprised the entirety of the wall in front of Bern Gold. On the right was a single image, a flat view of the world with several red dots spread across it. On the left, the space was gridded into several smaller squares, within each of them a face from one of the men he had met with just days before.

From where he was seated, he couldn’t help but admire how much better the view looked with thousands of miles separating each one.

Tucked away behind his desk, Gold kept the lights in his office dimmed so he could survey each of them without being seen himself. He watched for several minutes as some of them waited patiently while others fidgeted. One even seemed to grow quite agitated and made a show of checking and re-checking his watch.

Exactly five minutes after their agreed to meeting time he raised the lights in his office, calling the meeting to order. “Good evening, gentlemen.”

Several of the men flinched at the sound of his voice. Every one of them leaned forward and grew attentive.

“Thank you for coming together like this. I know this does not afford the same optimal protections of a face-to-face meeting, but I’m afraid given our wide array of geographic locations, it’s the best we can hope for.

“I trust everyone was able to follow the cyber-security guidelines you were given at our last meeting?”

A series of murmurs and a few bobbed heads answered his question in the affirmative.

“Despite these cyber-security measures, I would prefer to keep this meeting as brief as possible. We can never be too careful today as to who might be watching. The list of agencies the world over that would love to prevent us from moving forward is quite infinite.”

He paused just a moment, passing a cursory glance over the grid. “That said, we’ll get right to it, starting with Liverpool. Thomas, the floor is yours.”

Gold watched as an older gentleman with thin gray hair combed straight back leaned forward in his seat and cleared his throat. He had deep wrinkles encasing his mouth and a flat nose that barely managed to hold up a pair of wire-framed glasses.

“Thank you, Mr. Gold. As you all know my name is Thomas White and I have been on board the Liberation Day project since its inception.

“My most recent task has been to seize control of the Liverpool, England ports. Using simple English greed to my advantage, I have been able to persuade officials to hire who I wanted them to. I can have the docks ready for use in as little as twenty minutes.”

It appeared there was more he wanted to add, his body poised to continue, but he stopped himself there and leaned back.

“Excellent work, Thomas,” Gold said, jumping right in to keep things moving. “You have indeed been a loyal member to the project since its birth and have always done well with your charged tasks. I have no reason to believe this will be any different.”

“Thank you,” Thomas said, bowing his head.

Gold flipped a small switch and the light over Liverpool on the map changed from red to green. “Harold, how do we stand in Marseilles?”

Harold Buford adjusted his tie and said, “Hello again everyone, Harold Buford, Jr. here, son of Harold Buford, a near and dear friend to both Mr. Gold and Mr. White. It has been my privilege these last few years to take his spot and work with you gentlemen.

“For my part, I too have managed to use bribery to secure the French port. Not money mind you, but rather fine wine. The man who owns the Marseilles port is a loathsome sort that fancies himself a high society man of great taste. For the tiny price of a small ownership share in an outlying vineyard, I was able to acquire a controlling interest in the docks there.

“I have used that interest to slowly eradicate his entire work force and replace them with my own. We are ready for whatever Liberation Day requires at a moment’s notice.”

“Splendid,” Gold said, his voice not relaying the same sentiment, as he flipped another light from red to green. “Your father would be quite proud.”

“Thank you,” Buford said, flushing slightly in the cheeks.

“Next, we have Genoa. Mr. Miller?” Gold said.

Miller gave a small wave to the camera and said, “Hello, brothers in arms. It is good to see you all again. Banick Miller, the only person here with the privilege of being a third generation member of this elite club.

“The docks in Italy have been secured through my role as a venture capitalist. Using assorted contacts, I slowly squeezed the flow of traffic into Genoa for the last year until dire straits befell the port. Only then did I walk in with a bottom dollar bail-out scheme.

“Two months later, Operation Liberation Day had its Italian port and was turning a tidy profit to boot.”

It was quite obvious Miller was proud of what he had done, a fact that forced Gold to hide his true feelings as he flipped the light for Italy from red to green.

“Very good work indeed,” Gold deadpanned. “Vladivostok?”

A large man with a hooked nose and long stringy brown hair leaned forward into his camera and gave a curt nod. “Gentlemen, Gerald Werner. It has been my privilege as part of the Liberation Day project to secure the busiest dock in Russia.”

As he spoke a slight accent became apparent, though its origin was not.

“While you all have been able to prey on greed, I focused on traditional Russian custom. We’ve all heard the expression that possession is nine-tenths of the law. In Russia, the easiest way to gain possession is to simply have the most guns.”

A few of the men swayed before their cameras and Gold furrowed his brow, a concerned look on his face. “You staged a violent coup in gaining the docks? That seems a bit against the covert nature we are trying to operate under.”

Werner’s eyes widened before a look of realization spread across his face. “Oh, no sir. I did nothing of the sort. I said having the guns was the way to gain control.

“I concocted a few high-profile arms deals and let the information leak to the right people. There never were any weapons, but by the time I got done, everybody in Vladivostok thought I was preparing for a third World War.

“Once I approached the various owners, they almost begged me to take the docks.”

A thin smile of understanding spread across Gold’s face and he said, “An elaborate bluff and nothing more. Very well played.”

Werner exhaled and smiled back at the camera. “Thank you. The docks are secure and awaiting instruction from you, sir.”

Gold changed the light over Russia from red to green and swept his eyes across to the right. “Japan?”

A smaller man with hair dyed black and an expensive suit cleared his throat and said, “Hello, Mr. Gold, members of the project. Leonard Watts coming to you from Nagasaki, Japan.

“Unlike the situations before most of you, the sheer expansiveness of that the Nagasaki docks dictates there is no central ownership. Three different companies own sizable portions.”

“A problem indeed,” Gold said, playing the part, knowing Watts was only building up for his own faux moment of glory. “And how did you manage to circumvent this?”

A prideful smile spread across Watts face. “I now sit as the chair of one of those companies and own the controlling stake in the other two.”

“No easy task for a non-native in Japan I am sure,” Gold pointed out, fighting to keep the boredom from his voice.

“Nothing is difficult enough to keep our project from being completed,” Watts replied, his head bowing a bit, the corners of his mouth curled up in a smile.

“I could not agree more. Fine work, Mr. Watts,” Gold said, already pushing forward. He glanced at the screen to notice many of the men leaning forward in anticipation, a few fidgeting as they stared into their respective cameras. “Hamburg, Germany?”

A small, frail man rested a pair of thick-framed spectacles onto his nose and peered into the camera. His skin was pasty and pockmarked and more hair grew from his ears and eyebrows than his head.

“My name is Michael Black,” he began in a bombastic voice that did not fit his appearance. “I too have been on board this project since its inception and it has been my privilege to oversee the work here in Germany.

“As you are all very aware, Germany in the wake of the second World War was a veritable mess. No government infrastructure. No private protection. Nothing.

“As a result, actual ownership of things such as transportation went decades without being parsed out. That chaos was our gain, as I acquired the docks in 1962 and have been waiting for the day when we may be able to put them to use.

“That day is now here.”

Smiles of varying degrees spread across each of the men’s faces and several bobbed their heads.

Gold reached forward and flipped the switch for the light over Hamburg, giving the map a sweep of solid green. “That, my friends, is a beautiful sight.”

More heads nodded and a few even said, “Here here.”

“As I said before, gentlemen,” Gold said, seizing on the bit of good will present on the line, “we shall keep this as short as possible. We cannot be too careful of who may be watching us.

“Each of you will receive personal instructions from me in three days time telling you when and how your Brugmansia will arrive and what you should do once it does.

“As this may be the last time we all meet like this, I would like to say it has been a privilege working with you. Good luck and Godspeed.”

The moment the last syllable left his lips, the lights dimmed around him as he retreated back into the shadows. He watched as a few of the men made shows of clapping or pumping their fists into the camera.

One by one, almost all signed off the call.

Gold stayed deep in the shadows until finally there were but two faces remaining before him. He pressed a button to put them each on one of the monitors and raised the lights again in the room.

“Thomas White and Michael Black,” he said, shaking his head. “Black and White? Several decades to come up with pseudonyms and that’s the best you could do?”

Both of the men on the cameras before him laughed, the sound little more than labored wheezes.

“Seemed more feasible than John and James Doe,” Black said.

“And you’d already taken Gold,” White added.

Gold smirked and nodded his head, letting them both see the mirth on his face. “Yeah, I suppose I did. Were you gentlemen as bored through that as I was?”

“If not more so,” White said, adding an eye roll for effect.

“But did it work?” Black asked.

Gold slid the images of the two men to one monitor and brought up a computer screen on the other. On it were the names of each of the other men on the conference call, beside each the IP address they had been logged in from.

“All present and accounted for,” Gold said, scanning the list from top to bottom. “We only needed three and a half minutes to complete a trace. That lasted an eternity.”

“It is a shame it has to be this way,” White lamented.

“But, it does have to be this way,” Gold said.

“For sure,” White agreed. “The others have not been through what we’ve been through. They cannot and will not enjoy the culmination of our plan as if they are one of our own.”

“I agree entirely,” Gold said. He paused for a moment, watching as both of the men nodded, before adding, “Three days, gentlemen. We shall speak again in three days.”

Both nodded in assent, already briefed on the plan moving forward, before they too signed off.

Gold waited in silence, watching as their names appeared at the bottom of the list, their addresses just as clear as the others.

“You have everything in order for dispatching of them?” Gold asked, his attention aimed on the screen.

“Yes,” Ling said, stepping forward from the corner of the room, his body hidden by the heavy curtain covering the entrance.

All of them?” Gold asked.

“Certainly,” Ling replied.

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

 

Nio threw a wave to the old man working the marina and eased away from the dock. He had never driven a boat before but it didn’t seem to matter, the handling as simple as his Honda back home.

The vessel was a seventeen-foot Tracker with a standard V6 engine strapped to the back of it. Onboard was every gadget conceived for the sport of fishing; an outboard trolling motor, depth gauge, and fish finder lining one side while Iggy sprawled out on the other.

Nio sat behind the wheel in a pair of board shorts and a backwards trucker’s cap. The dark skin of his chest and shoulders was bare to the mid-day sun as he draped his left hand over the wheel and dropped the throttle with his right.

The boat responded to his touch and picked up speed, soon cutting a comfortable pace across the gentle waves of the Atlantic. Overhead the sky was clear, just a few lazy gulls floating by. Along the shoreline Nio could see small clusters of ducks, none looking their way as they passed.

The transaction had been easy enough, the Garcia’s posing as a couple in town for a few days looking to do some fishing along the coast. The old man behind the counter had been hesitant at first to rent to someone from out of state, but their offer to pay significantly more than the going rate had forced back any inhibitions easily enough.

In total the entire transaction took less than twelve minutes, most of that time spent with the man pointing out all the equipment on board and giving Nio a thirty-second lesson behind the wheel.

For the first twenty minutes of the trip Nio hugged the coastline, letting the engine run at full throttle. In front of him Iggy lounged in the sun, her dark skin offset by a white bikini.

As best either one could tell, the plan was simply to head north and snoop around for a bit. Neither had any expectations of seeing much, just wanting to get a look at what they might be up against. With each passing day it became more apparent that their father had been lost forever, but the more answers they could ferret out, the better both would sleep.

Drawing his cell phone from his pocket, Nio checked their location against the coordinates he had lifted from Thorn that morning. On screen he could see a red dot where their destination was, below it a blue marker indicating current position.

Keeping the phone out and accessible, he held the boat on course for another four minutes before throttling down, the craft lurching as the front end lowered itself. White sea foam spread around them in a wide arc, the low rumble of the engine sounding out.

“Ready to do some fishing?” Nio asked, allowing the boat to come to a complete stop before shutting off the engine. For a moment they were adrift on the waves, the gentle lapping pushing them toward the rocky shore thirty yards away.

“Do I have to?” Iggy asked, letting out a groan as she rolled onto her backside and sat upright.

“Can’t very well watch for much while staring down at the bottom of the boat,” Nio said, climbing past her toward the raised fishing seat on the front end. Unsnapping the clasp, he settled himself down atop it and lowered the outboard motor into the water. Once it was positioned, he rifled through the foot controls a few times to get the hang of it before aiming them at an angle from the coast and pushing forward.

Rousting herself to life, Iggy rolled from her perch and opened the fishing pole compartment she was seated on. From it she lifted four poles, a pair of spin reels and a matching pair of bait casters.

“You have any idea how to use these things?” she asked, laying them out side by side.

“Well enough. If all goes to plan, we won’t have to use them much.”

Sliding the phone from his pocket, he tracked their position, seeing the two markers almost draw even. Tucking it back away, he took up one of the poles, unfastening the lure from the third eyelet on the pole and letting it swing free in front of him. He examined the oversized jig before arching the pole back over his head and casting toward the shoreline.

Thirty yards of line fed out from the reel as the bait landed with a tiny splash.

“Huh, nicely done,” Iggy said, no small amount of surprise in her voice as she grabbed up the second spin reel. Settling herself onto the opposite end of the boat, she unfastened the lure and hefted it back behind her head. Trying to match the same motion she’d seen her brother use a moment before, she snapped it down toward the horizon with excessive force.

The lure slammed into the water three feet in front of her, salt water splashing up into the boat. She cursed several times, Nio stifling a snicker behind her.

For the next fifteen minutes the pair sat in silence, Nio casting every so often, using the mirrored sunglasses to hide his eyes as he scoured the shoreline. Six feet away Iggy did the same, giving up on casting and allowing her lure to drag behind.

The nose of the boat moved forward in a serpentine direction as the gentle waves and the outboard motor fought each other for control. The current seemed to gain steam as they moved on, the rocky outcropping of the shoreline rising ever higher out of the water.

High above, the sun began its slow trudge toward the horizon as Nio said, “Iggy, three o’clock.”

Not once did he change his movements as his right hand steadily reeled in his line, his attention on the sheer wall beside them.

At the sound of his voice Iggy stood and stretched, raising her hands high overhead and twisting at the waist to get a full view of what he was describing. “Not very inconspicuous, are they?”

“Unless somebody was in a boat looking for them, nobody would ever even notice,” Nio replied.

Halfway up the wall were two large clusters of tree branches jutting out from the rock wall. To a commercial trawler inching its way past, the items would look completely natural.

For a pair of people in a fishing boat, they couldn’t have been more obvious.

The branches looked to be made from aluminum, the stock of them painted light brown. A smattering of green plastic leaves was attached at odd angles, fluttering in the breeze, doing a poor job of concealing cameras pointing in either direction.

“Any idea what they’re watching?” Iggy asked, finishing her stretch and dropping back into her seat.

“Not yet,” Nio replied, sending his lure hurtling toward the base of the wall. “I’m going to keep pushing north and see what we find.”

Iggy grunted in the affirmative and dropped her line out behind the boat, watching as the purple and green jig descended into the water. The silver spoon attached to it glittered in the sun for several seconds before disappearing from sight, the dark water swallowing it up.

“Hey, Nio.”

“Yeah?” Nio responded without turning back, moving the reel extra slow as he scanned the wall.

“The ocean floor just dropped away beneath us.”

“Could be a hidden port,” Nio guessed, spinning around in the chair. He slid his sandal from his foot and pressed on the depth finder with his toe, a topographical readout of the land beneath them appearing on screen.

“Looks like we went from eight feet to twenty feet deep pretty quick,” Nio said, turning back to the outboard motor. In the deeper water the current was much stronger, Nio angling the nose of the boat away from the wall at a forty-five degree angle to keep them moving in a straight line.

Alternating his gaze between the wall and the current, he abandoned casting as he fought to keep the boat in line, watching for any sign of what they were looking for.

On his third glance over he spotted it, a thin line running perfectly vertical down the sheer cliff and dropping into the depths of the water below.

“Got it,” Nio whispered. He waited in silence, pushing the nose of the boat out to sea and taking up his rod, pretending to check the lure. “See it?

“Looks like a damn granite garage door,” Iggy muttered behind him.

Nio grunted in agreement, pushing them a bit further away from the wall and resuming his casting. “Keep fishing. If we stop now it’ll be too obvious.”

“And then what?” Iggy asked, dropping her lure back into the water and letting it spool out behind them.

“We got what we came for,” Nio said. “Once we’re out of sight, we’ll loop around and head home.”

Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

 

The single flight of stairs from Gold’s office had never felt so long. With each passing step Ling felt his knee tighten a little more, the acrimony within him burning hot. Forcing into place a façade of mirrored calm, he pushed his pace as fast as his leg would allow as he passed through the middle foyer of the mansion. As he made a turn down the main corridor toward the exit, he could hear shouting originating from the guard’s room, the outburst doing nothing to quell his dark mood.

“Whoo! You see the body on that thing?” one voice exclaimed.

“Damn shame she’s with that little pencil dick,” another added. “I could show her a thing or two!”

“Ha!” a third chimed in. “Why the hell would she want you two when she could go for a ride on a stallion?”

With each uneven step Ling felt his insides simmer, his face twisting itself into a mask of rage. He could hear the voices grow louder as he approached, swinging out from the hallway and into the room. His sudden appearance stopped all three guards where they stood, each of them staring in abject fear at him, their mouths hanging open.

“Are you assholes about done in here?” he seethed. “A damn army could storm the halls and you wouldn’t know it right now.”

Mouths still agape, all three diverted their eyes like scolded children.

Ling surveyed the room, letting them feel his glare on their skin. “Anybody want to tell me what the hell has you in here yelling like idiots?”

The three remained silent, each of them fidgeting and avoiding eye contact. With measured hatred, Ling looked at them in turn and walked forward into the room. As he moved, the three men pushed to the side, making a path to the video bank behind them.

Gone were the images of the various cameras around the perimeter, in their place a single image of a girl in a white bikini holding a fishing pole.

In one quick and fluid movement Ling snapped his hand out for the guard closest to him, closing his fingers around a fistful of flesh and shirt. He used the grip to draw the man close, ignoring the tiny whimper that escaped him.

“You took down every security camera we have for this?”

“Uh, well,” the man stammered as Ling tightened his grip and began to twist. A low moan rolled up from deep in the man’s throat as Ling turned his head and again stared at the image on the screen. He remained in the same position as recognition began to settle in. “Where did you get this?”

The man opened his mouth to speak, but no sounds came out.

Using his free hand, Ling smacked the man across the face, the sound of skin-on-skin contact loud in the room. Maintaining his grip, he shifted his attention to the other two, both having retreated back against the wall.

“Where did you get this?”

“The docks,” the man on the right finally managed. “They said she went by a little bit ago and sent it up here for us to look at.”

Shoving the man away, Ling whirled on the ball of his foot and limped away, leaving all three men terrified behind him. Raising his gait to an uneven jog, he passed back into the main foyer and shot down a diagonal hallway, the corridor just one more of many extended out like spokes on a wheel.

At the end of it he passed through a black metal door, the release latch sounding out as he pushed it open, and descended two long flights of stairs.

The elevator would have been easier on his knee, but anger and opportunity fueled him as he took the steps two at time. At the bottom, he pushed open a matching door, emerging along the indoor dock.

In a few quick steps he made it to the guardhouse door and burst inside, the startled guard staring at him with the same shocked expression as the men upstairs.

“How long ago did that fishing boat go through?” Ling snapped, standing in the doorway with a hand on either side of the frame. “The fishing boat! The girl in the bikini! How long ago, you idiot?!”

The man blinked twice, his entire body rigid. “Um, not long. Maybe fifteen or twenty minutes.”

“And you didn’t stop them?”

“We watched them the whole way,” the guard managed. “They didn’t stop or slow down at all. Didn’t even quit fishing as they went.”

“Fools,” Ling hissed, spitting the word out at the man. “Which way did they go?”

“Uh, north,” the guard managed, nothing more than his mouth and eyes having moved in the entire interaction.

“What’s the fastest boat you have here?”

The man reached up behind him, grabbing a set of keys from a hook on the wall and tossing them to Ling. “The Apache. Black one on the end.”

“Open the gate,” Ling said, pushing himself away from the frame and heading in the opposite direction. Gone was any consideration for his knee as he strode forward, sighting in on the Apache.

As we walked, he pointed at a man scrubbing down the neighboring boat, snapping his finger over to the black speedboat on the end. “Put that shit down and get over here.”

The man did as commanded, scrambling up onto the walkway and hopping into the boat. Ling tossed him the keys and untied the mooring line, watching as the overhead door opened before them.

“Where to?” the driver asked, starting the engine, the entire body of the craft vibrating with coiled power. Easing the throttle down just a bit, he pushed them out of the hidden harbor, the bright afternoon sun bathing them in a golden hue.

“North. Fast,” Ling said, removing the fedora from his head and leaning forward. The wind increased in his face as the boat picked up speed, pushing his hair back against his head.

The front end of the boat rocked up and slammed back down into the water as pure horsepower pushed them forward along the shoreline. A large rooster tail of water shot out behind them as they picked up speed.

Even at full speed, it took a full five minutes before an object took shape on the horizon before them.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

 

“I think we’ve gone far enough to sell it,” Nio said, drawing his lure up out of the ocean. Saltwater dripped from the hooks as he swung it near and fastened it down. “Pull your lines and let’s head for home.”

“Thank God,” Iggy grumbled, reeling in the last few feet of line. “I think I’m starting to get seasick out here.”

“Yeah, it’s definitely starting to get rougher,” Nio agreed, folding his fishing seat down and pulling the outboard motor from the water. He laid his pole down and waited as Iggy did the same before putting them and the bait casters back in the holding bin.

“How in the hell do people get any enjoyment out of this sport?” Iggy asked, extending her hands out in front of her and rotating at the waist.

“Could be worse,” Nio said, slamming the bin shut. “We’re out in a boat on the ocean. Imagine doing this on a pond in Middle America somewhere.”

A low chortle rolled out of Iggy as she finished her stretch, stopping halfway through her rotation. Raising a hand to her brow, she peered at the horizon, her body going rigid.

“Nio.”

“Yeah?” he asked, pocketing his phone and heading for the steering column.

“Somebody’s coming up behind us fast.”

Without looking up Nio twisted the key in the ignition, the V-6 rumbling to life. “So? There are a ton of ports up the coast. I’m surprised we haven’t seen more people out here.”

Lowering the throttle, the boat pushed forward, twin streaks of white foam extending out in diagonal lines in their wake. Behind him Iggy braced herself for the movement, keeping a hand raised to her brow.

“They’re still coming.”

Pushing an exasperated sigh out through his nose, Nio turned over his shoulder to see a low-slung speedboat approaching. The nose of it was aimed directly for their tail, cutting right through the twin tracks of sea foam behind them.

Feeling his pulse rise, Nio lowered the throttle, turning the wheel a quarter turn to the right. “Hold on. I’m going to change our course, see what they do.”

The change of direction tossed Iggy down against the seats, her body slapping the vinyl. Beside her Nio braced himself against the steering column, the front end of the boat bouncing over the incoming swells.

“Still back there!” Iggy said, raising herself up onto her knees, her torso pressed tight to the seatbacks.

Pushing the throttle as far as it would go, Nio waited until the boat reached full speed before banking and making a hard right out into the ocean. Foam and water spewed into the air behind them as they made a large fish hook away from shore, turning back in the opposite direction.

The move caught the approaching boat by surprise, the vessel roaring at full speed and unable to correct itself on the fly. For a few brief seconds the two ran parallel to each other in opposite directions, both sides openly staring at the other as they passed by.

In unison Nio and Iggy’s jaws both fell open, realization setting in. Their heads rotated at the necks as they passed by, following their sudden intruder.

“Isn’t that…?” Iggy said, her voice ripped away by the rushing wind.

“That son of a bitch from the security camera,” Nio finished, leaning forward over the wheel, willing the boat to go faster.

There was no way they could make it all the way back to the marina they had rented from. The boat behind them was too fast, the path right past their headquarters too perilous. Even if they could somehow get there, no help would be waiting nearby. The old man behind the counter would be of no service, the police miles away at best.

“Where they at?” Nio asked over his shoulder, keeping his entire attention focused forward.

“Just made the turn and starting to pick up speed,” Iggy said, alternating glances between the approaching boat and her brother. “Why they hell are we slowing down?”

“I’m drawing them closer.”

What? Why?”

“We’ll never make it going south,” Nio said. “I need them to overshoot us again so we can get up the coast.”

Ripping her sunglasses off and tossing them aside, Iggy continued alternating glances. ”Two hundred yards and closing.”

Staring straight ahead, Nio willed himself to count a full ten seconds before dropping the throttle and banking hard toward the coastline. The boat bucked beneath them, tossing them both to the side, before catching an incoming wave and surging forward.

For a second time the move caught their pursuers unawares, the black boat forced to swing a wide loop around them in an effort to turn. Nio glanced over his shoulder as they shot by, watching as the Asian man yelled and waved his arms overhead.

“Where the hell are we going now?” Iggy yelled, repositioning herself on the seat.

“I don’t know,” Nio muttered, his voice just barely audible. “First port we see. Hopefully it’s a big one.”

“Great,” Iggy whispered, watching as their pursuer finished the turn, having looped wide into oncoming waves.

The incoming wind matted Nio’s hair to his head, funneling back off of his sunglasses as he peered out over the steering wheel. With each passing second they picked up a bit more speed, the front end starting to bounce from the crest of one wave to the next.

“Faster, dammit. Faster!” Iggy yelled. “They’re catching up!”

“I am!” Nio roared back. “This thing isn’t made for high-speed chases.”

Ahead on the horizon the first hint of sails crested above the water, a line of uneven spikes like trees on a ridge line. The sight of them only served to raise the adrenaline within Nio, his hand again finding the throttle, pushing it downward in vain.

“Fifty yards and closing!” Iggy reported. “If you’ve got any more evasive maneuvers, this would be the time!”

Watching the white caps racing by on either side, there was no way Nio could try another about face. Even if the move were to catch their pursuers by surprise a third time, the sudden change of direction and the momentum of the incoming waves would flip them over, tossing them against the shore and battering them to bits.

“Twenty yards…fifteen.”

Nio could feel the same strain present in Iggy’s voice pulsing through him. Ahead the line of sails grew taller, now almost three inches in height, lined in perfect order.

“Five yards!” Iggy yelled.

Nio turned to see the boat bearing down on them, so close he could almost reach out and touch it. A young guy sat wide-eyed behind the wheel as the Asian man from the docks braced himself in the well and stared at them. The boat drew to within a few feet of their rear before nudging itself to the right, inching forward alongside them.

As it did, the Asian man rose to full height in the well and perched himself along the side of the boat.

“Get down, now!” Nio yelled, waiting just a split second before jerking up on the throttle. There was an ugly grinding of gears as the boat jerked to a crawl, their pursuers hurtling past.

Once they were gone by, Nio once more dropped the throttle, taking off at an angle in their wake.

Ahead, the row of docked sailboats and the hope it represented lay just over a mile away.

“Here they come again!” Iggy yelled.

“I know,” Nio muttered, trying to transfer every bit of energy he had into the rig beneath him. Despite his every effort, the nose of the other boat began again to creep into his periphery.

The object flew in before either Nio or Iggy had a chance to register what it was, a simple round orb tossed by the Asian man. It made a single hollow sound as it landed along the bow of the boat, bouncing just once before exploding, a shower of wood chunks and fiberglass erupting around them.

The front end of the boat jerked down hard into the ocean, saltwater pouring up over it. Acrid smoke billowed up around them, burning their eyes and throats, blocking most of their view.

Behind the wheel Nio tried in vain to push the engine, to jerk the wheel away from their attackers, but it was to no avail. Every form of navigation the boat employed was gone, an expensive piece of flotsam bobbing on the whim of the waves.

Nio never saw the Asian man hop from the side of his boat onto the Tracker. He had no idea he was nearby until hearing a scream erupt from Iggy, a blur of black clothing and brown skin passing before him in the smoky haze.

Their bodies landing in a twisted heap on the bow of the black boat was the last thing he saw before the oncoming waves overcame his own vessel, a deluge of water sending him under.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

 

“What have you got on that address, Coach?”

A half dozen hours had passed since their last conversation, though Thorn had managed only a few hours of anything resembling rest. Once the call had come in from Steubin authorizing him to use the satellite surveillance system, he had brought his laptop into the living room and posted up. With Abby asleep by his side and his bare feet resting on the coffee table, he had sat inert for the past three hours, trolling the grounds as best he could.

So far, it had been little more than an exercise in tedium and frustration.

His only hope was Ingram’s afternoon had been more productive.

“Property has a paper trail a mile long,” Ingram began, reading the information from a printout in hand. “It’s owned by a company named Axis Industries, which as far as I can tell doesn’t exist – or if it does, it’s only business transaction ever was to buy that house.”

“Axis Industries? Yeah, that sounds legit,” Thorn said, letting his voice relay his disbelief.

“Even better? Paid in full. Cash.”

At that Thorn’s eyebrows rose, a puff of air passing over his lips. “Damn. Place looks like a palace on the satellite imagery.”

“Does on the real estate listing too,” Ingram said. “Gardens, pools, fountains, everything.”

“All the makings for a criminal’s lair in a bad movie,” Thorn said.

“My first thought as well.”

“Who the hell has that kind of cash on hand?” Thorn asked.

“And that was my second thought,” Ingram added. “The kind that tosses containers full of people into the harbor, I guess.”

For a moment, silence fell between them, Thorn nodding with Ingram’s assessment.

“What else?” Thorn asked.

“Not a whole hell of a lot,” Ingram said. “I took a look at things from the air. Place is enormous, have to assume it’s well protected.”

After three hours, Thorn had been over every surface visible from the heavens. Each one had already been committed to memory.

More than once he had run naval ops with less concrete visual data.

“Sheer cliff walls lining two sides of the property,” Thorn said. “High fences and gates on the other two. Whoever designed it meant for the place to be a damn fortress.”

“Yeah,” Ingram agreed.

“Any chance there’s much more to be mined from the records?” Thorn asked.

Turning to face forward, Ingram squinted into the camera, wagging one hand on an edge. “Maybe, but doubtful. The back trail is clean, scrubbed to a shine. Anything I do find is likely to have been planted to throw off anybody snooping around.”

Leaning forward, Thorn sat the laptop onto the coffee table and rested his elbows on his knees. He ran a palm along the back of his head, scratching at the scalp with his fingers.

Right now they had a location, but precious little else. There was no name, no clear motivation for what was going on. It would be possible to simply hand over the address to Turner and his associates, letting them handle it as they saw fit.

If things happened to go sideways though, there would be no way of telling when another opportunity might present itself.

“We need more intel,” Thorn said, placing it out there so Ingram knew he was thinking aloud rather than slinging an accusation.

“I concur,” Ingram said, “but like I just told you, I don’t know how much more I can pick out of this stuff.”

“No,” Thorn said, shaking his head and raising his gaze to look at Ingram. “I don’t mean financials, I mean on the house itself.”

“Meaning?” Ingram asked.

“When I was in the service,” Thorn said, “we had these things that were like electronic relay stations. Small, no bigger than an alarm clock.”

“Which you used as an enhancement point for satellites,” Ingram said, nodding along.

“Exactly,” Thorn said. “Right now I’ve got a good picture of the grounds, but I’m not seeing any more detail than cars moving around. If we could somehow get a relay station in place…”

“We could start running facial recognition,” Ingram said, finishing the thought, his own voice trailing away as he chewed on it. “Interesting idea.”

“The problem is, the ones we had were basically useless beyond a quarter mile out,” Thorn said. “And given the size of the grounds…”

“It would have to be placed on-site,” Ingram said.

Thorn nodded in agreement, not bothering to voice anything further.

“Give me an hour,” Ingram said, “let me see what I can dig up. I’ll call you back.”

The screen cut to blue before Thorn had a chance to respond, the bright sapphire color causing his eyes to squint. For a moment he sat and stared at the mute program before exiting out of it and pulling the satellite imagery software back into place.

He was less than a minute into another sweep of the grounds when his cell phone vibrated on the table beside him.

Chapter Forty

 

 

“Put me down, dammit!” Iggy yelled as Ling hefted her onto his shoulder and carried her away from the dock. With both hands bound she pounded against his lower back, her kidney shots absorbed as if unfelt. Around her she was vaguely of aware of a dozen dockworkers, all looking on in open curiosity, nobody making any effort to aid her.

“I said, put me down!” she repeated as Ling carried her up the gangplank and into an elevator. The entire time he kept an iron grip around her waist, stifling any attempts to wiggle free. When the door opened he marched her through the main foyer, none of the staff inside acting as if they heard her continued requests for help.

Clearly, this was not something they were unaccustomed to seeing.

Ling carried her up the stairwell to Gold’s office and knocked on the frame of the door. A moment later they were called inside, where Ling dumped Iggy in a chair and stepped back.

The offering was received with a look mixed of surprise and good humor, Gold arching an eyebrow up at his employee. “For me? You shouldn’t have.”

The remark was met with no response as Ling positioned his hands before him, staring down.

“Please, excuse us for a moment,” Gold said, shifting his attention to Iggy, but raising his voice to let it be known he was speaking to Ling. “I’d like to have a conversation with our guest here in private.”

The only sound Iggy heard was the whoosh of fabric as Ling left the room, a breath of cool air kissing her neck. Once it had fallen away she focused her entire attention forward, her body angled awkwardly in the chair, the bungee cords wrapped around her wrists and ankles preventing her from making any type of movement.

”Welcome,” Gold said, extending his hands to either side. “My name is Bern Gold, and this is my home.”

Iggy stared back at the introduction, saying nothing.

“What is your name, miss?” Gold asked.

A long moment passed as Iggy stared at him, contempt on her features. “Rojas. Vanessa Rojas.”

The same look came to Gold’s face as he met the stare, his features growing hard. “What is your real name, miss?”

“I just told you my name,” Iggy replied.

“As I am sure you have well surmised by now, I am a very powerful man. And you do not get to be a powerful man by being lied to. We both know you’re name isn’t Vanessa Rojas any more than mine is Abraham Lincoln.

“Since I don’t really care and you don’t seem interested in civil conversation though, allow me to get to the heart of the matter. Why were you snooping along the coastline?”

Clearly their entire afternoon trip had been watched from inside the mansion, relayed to everyone relevant. For the briefest of moments Iggy felt her cheeks flush, a rush of self-condemnation for their foolishness in believing they could sneak by unnoticed.

“We weren’t snooping. My boyfriend and I were fishing.”

“Fishing? Really?”

“We were vacationing and wanted to get out on the ocean. He likes to fish so I agreed to go along.”

“Does vacationing include walking along the Boston docks late at night?”

Again Iggy felt herself flush, warmth growing between her back and the leather seat beneath her. “I’ve never been to the Boston docks in my life. I don’t know who your man thought he saw, but it wasn’t me.”

The corners of Gold’s mouth played up a bit. “Mistaken? Ling? I think not. The only person here that is mistaken is you if you believe you can lie to me and not soon come to regret it.”

“Regret it?” Iggy asked, narrowing her eyes in confusion, intent to play the role of ignorant rube for as long as she could. “What do you want from me? What could I begin to have that you would want?”

“You have information. You have the truth as to why you’re here poking around in my backyard.”

“Not poking, just fishing,” Iggy said, hearing just the slightest hint of a crack in her own voice.

It was clear at a glance that Gold had heard it as well.

“Alright then, we shall do it your way,” Gold said. “Had you cooperated I could have made your stay here quite comfortable. Instead, you have chosen the alternative.”

“The alternative?”

“Ling, could you come in here?” Gold said into the hall.

On cue, the curtain drew open and Ling stepped into the room, another puff of cool air coming with him. “Yes, Mr. Gold?”

“Please show our guest where we keep visitors that can’t seem to tell the truth.”

Chapter Forty-One

 

 

“Lenny Brubaker, mighty glad to know ya,” the large, red-faced man said as he pumped Ingram’s hand.

“John Bingham,” Ingram replied, trying his best to smile and keep pace with the gusto of Brubaker’s handshake.

“So how’d you get hooked up with this job anyway? Positions with Red Apple don’t just grow on trees, ya know?” Brubaker said, standing back with an expectant smile on his face.

Playing along, Ingram bit back a grimace and smiled at the lame joke. “Just got lucky. Been trying for ages to get on here.”

“Don’t I know how that goes. Spent five long years paying my dues at a local Shaw’s Market before I got the call. It’ll all be worth it in the end though, I can promise ya that.”

The end, as it were, was something Ingram hoped was just a few hours away, though he stood and nodded anyway. “I hope you’re right.”

The two exchanged awkward smiles for a few moments longer before Lenny clapped his hands in front of him and nodded. “All right, so you’ll be riding with me the first few weeks until ya get your feet under ya. Hop in!”

Whistling, Lenny turned and climbed into the frozen container truck. Across from him, Ingram slid into the passenger seat and feigned interest as Lenny went through a lengthy list of things to be checked before departure.

Cooler temperature. Invoices for the day. Inventory in the truck. Addresses of deliveries.

The list was long and exhaustive.

Ingram bit back the urge to roll his eyes at the tedium of it, knowing Thorn had been right. The satellite imagery wasn’t good enough to give them anything definitive and several of the people inside already knew him by sight. If there was ever going to be a chance to get a relay point on the grounds, it had to be him that did it.

After determining that the only thing the property wasn’t completely self-sustainable on was high-end foods, the ruse had been easy enough to set up. Ingram called and pretended to be a worried parent with a forlorn son that couldn’t seem to catch a break. Red Apple wasn’t too excited about taking on a new employee or starting him the next day, but after an hour of negotiating and a $5,000 bribe, he was the newest member of the company.

Any suspicions or inhibitions they had completely evaporated at the promise of money, as such things tended to.

Ten minutes after pulling away from the warehouse, Lenny eased the truck up behind a small market titled Simply the Best. The sign said they specialized in fresh, all-natural products, and Ingram didn’t doubt it as he climbed out of the truck to be greeted by the aroma of produce. He was introduced as The New Guy to the owners of the market and together he and Brubaker unloaded several large cases of fresh oysters and a flat of Maine lobster tails.

The second stop on the list was a small deli known for organic meats and cheeses, Lenny watching as Ingram unloaded cases of Havarti, Gouda, and Brie. Throughout he took up a post nearby with the owners, talking loud enough for Ingram to hear him, referring to him as Newbie the entire time.

Once the truck was loaded to capacity, they finally began their trek north up the coast.

“Now listen,” Lenny said as they approached the enormous mansion overlooking the ocean, “ya better let me do most of the talking in here.”

Ingram chose not to point out that Lenny had done ninety-eight percent of the talking so far that morning, instead keeping his attention outside, watching for any details that might prove useful later on. “Why’s that?”

“These guys, they enjoy their privacy. They don’t like a lot of idle chatter and prefer for us to be in and out as fast as possible.”

Forcing himself to stay in the present Ingram glanced over, feigning interest in the topic. “We piss them off at some point or something?”

A look of equal parts fear and foreboding crossed Brubaker’s face as he glanced back. “I get the impression that these aren’t the kind of folks that would keep us around if we’d pissed them off, ya know?”

“Got it,” Ingram said as they pulled up in front of a wrought-iron gate.

Dropping the driver’s side window, Lenny reached out and pushed the call button. A moment later a mechanized voice asked, “Who is it?”

“Red Apple, sir, here with your weekly delivery,” Lenny replied in a cheery voice that bordered on sing-song.

Outside, a pair of large cameras on either side of the gate moved along the length of the van. “Who’s the new guy?”

“John Bingham, just started today. I’m showing him around,” Lenny replied.

“ID?”

Ingram took his wallet from his back pocket and removed the driver’s license he had made the night before. He held it up to the window and watched as the closest camera pivoted and zoomed in close.

A few minutes later, the gate swung open.

“You weren’t kidding, were you?” Ingram whispered, doing his best to feign surprise.

“Be glad they’ve got cameras out here now. When I first started there were guards roaming the grounds. Big dogs, too.”

Ingram kept his head aimed straight ahead, though his gaze darted back and forth as the truck wound its way along the wooded lane toward the mansion. Thick trees dotted the yard and security cameras peeked out from each one.

A pair of Dobermans raised their heads from the front steps as they drove past, sniffing the air.

The lane wrapped around a tri-level house, much of the front covered with oversized glass windows. Thick columns were stretched the length of it, supporting matching porches on each level.

Eschewing the front entrance, Lenny followed the drive to a small ramp down to the lower level. A steel garage door rose as they approached, the van idling before pulling inside, the metal covering lowering itself back into place the moment they were parked.

A small man in a white chef’s outfit emerged from the underbelly of the building as they arrived, a taller woman in a matching outfit at his side. Two security guards dressed entirely in black stood on either side of the truck and surveyed every movement as Lenny and Ingram climbed out.

Neither one held a weapon, though their stooped posture made it clear they were used to doing so.

“Did you get my order change this morning?” the chef asked in a worried voice.

“Yes, Mr. Jinsen, we sure did. We were able to get our hands on some fresh lobster tails for you, as requested,” Lenny responded.

A relieved smile spread across the man’s face as he glanced from Lenny to Ingram.

“Thank you so much. Who is your new assistant?”

Ingram bristled at the term assistant, but said nothing.

“This is Mr. John Bingham, new employee with us,” Lenny said, extending a hand out wide.

“Ah yes,” Jinsen replied, nodding as if he already knew who Ingram was, ”and this is Ms. Kaitlin Esther, my new sous chef.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Lenny said as one of the guards gave a none-too-subtle cough. Picking up on the gesture, he pushed right ahead without waiting for a response from Esther. “Should we unload it in the same place as usual?”

“Yes, of course,” Jinsen replied, waiting for both to grab an armload of supplies before leading them inside. He stayed with them through each trip, scrutinizing every item they presented and shaking his head at those that didn’t pass muster.

Ingram’s original plan was to hide the access point in one of the cases of food, but it soon became apparent that the watchful eye of Jinsen would not allow it. He waited until the truck was almost unloaded before purposely falling back a few steps, letting the distance grow behind Lenny and Jinsen.

Waiting for Esther, he managed to pull her to the side and whispered, “I’m very sorry, but is there a restroom I could use, please?”

Her eyes grew a bit larger as she cast a glance in both directions. “It’s at the end of that hallway, but it’s supposed to be for staff only.”

“Please,” Ingram pleaded, letting her see the concern on his face. “Lenny bought me a large iced coffee for my first day and now I’m paying for it. I’ll never make it clear back to the warehouse.”

In response Esther bit her lip, clearly concerned by the request. After a moment she nodded, the worry she felt at doing so obvious on her face. “Okay, but hurry. Last door on your right.”

“Thank you so much,” Ingram said, taking off at a fast clip before she had a moment to reconsider.

Moving in quick strides, he made it to the last door and ducked inside, shutting the door behind him. He gave the lock a quick twist before going to the toilet and removing the lid from the back reservoir.

Extracting the relay from his cargo pants, he secured it to the underside of the lid with double-sided tape and dropped it back into place.

Flushing the toilet once for effect, he was back on his way down the hall in less than a minute.

He arrived back into the pantry just as Lenny and Jinsen reappeared, pretending to reposition the last box he had carried in. A bashful smile crossed his features as he turned to look at them, pushing out a puff of air for effect.

“You don’t have to pretend,” Lenny boomed as he entered. “I know ya may have trouble keeping up right now, but you’ll get your feet under ya in no time!”

Ingram smiled again and made a show of wiping his brow as they exited the house and piled back into the truck. There was a quick exchange of paperwork between the sides and just twenty minutes after arriving they were back on their way, headed south.

Chapter Forty-Two

 

 

Every eleven minutes the sprayers kicked on. There would be a small hissing sound to alert Iggy it was coming, followed by the incessant icy mist sprayed over her body.

The last thing Iggy remembered with any certainty was Ling throwing her over his shoulder and carrying her from Gold’s office. The final image she held was the smug look of self-satisfaction on the old man’s face as Ling drove her head into the doorway, darkness settling in. When she awoke an unknown amount of time later, she found herself in her current position, completely drenched.

The room was tiny, measuring barely five feet square. Her arms were secured by chains extended from either side that ended in heavy shackles around her wrists. The walls and ceiling were lined with a labyrinth of irrigation pipes resembling something found in a greenhouse or the produce department of a supermarket.

Perfectly synchronized, every eleven minutes they unleashed a blast of water that soaked Iggy’s entire body. No matter where she stood or how she tried to cover herself, she could not hide from the frigid mist. Dressed only in the white bikini top and shorts she wore on the boat, goose bumps covered her exposed skin and her nipples stood hard beneath her top.

Between blasts, Iggy attempted push-ups or jumping jacks to warm her freezing body, but each time the pounding dizziness in her head minimized results. For long periods of time she would sit and clench various muscles, trying her best to keep blood flowing to her extremities.

When she no longer had the strength to do even that, she simply sat on the ground, hugging her knees to her chest and shivering violently. Though far beyond exhaustion, the quivering that wracked her entire body kept rest from occurring.

Almost catatonic and on the verge of passing out, the heavy sound of a lock turning rang out and jarred some flicker of consciousness into her. Making no attempt to rise, she shifted as much as her bindings would allow to face the man she knew would be there.

A flood of bright light swept into the room, silhouetting her visitor and his black fedora in the doorway.

“I trust you are enjoying your stay here with us,” Ling asked in a voice that oozed sarcasm.

Iggy did not try to hide the disgust on her face as she looked at him under heavy eyelids, her hair hanging wet and lank over her face, trembling but saying nothing.

“Mr. Gold and I have both told you, this can all be over. All you have to do is cooperate.”

“C-cooperate? That’s w-what you call it?” Iggy asked, her voice barely a rasp.

A thin smile grew across Ling’s face. “Yes, cooperate. That’s what I call it.” He took a few steps forward into the room and knelt down so he could look Iggy in the eye.

A second silhouette appeared behind him in the doorway, a shadow falling over the room, though Iggy never took her gaze from Ling.

“So, are you ready to cooperate?”

Again, Iggy said nothing, instead just glaring back at him.

“Who are you working with?”

Iggy exhaled a couple of times and said, “As I told your boss, I am here on vacation with my boyfriend.”

“This boyfriend of yours, would he be the Latino gentleman that looks an awful lot like you? Or maybe the large white guy I met on the dock the other night?”

“I don’t know any large white guy,” Iggy whispered. “My boyfriend is Cuban. You saw him. You tried to drown us for no reason.”

Ling sighed and extended his hand, using it to grasp hers. His grip felt warm compared to the cold water, the sensation seeming to burn her skin. “Are you aware of who I am?”

“I have no idea who you are or why you’re doing this to me,” Iggy whispered, her hair swinging as she shook her head.

“I am a man that does not like to be lied to, and I am a man that does things in a very particular way.”

“I’m not lying to you,” Iggy whispered, shoving the words out in one quick burst.

For a moment Ling simply stared at her, a look bordering on pity crossing his features. Just as fast he grabbed hold of her pinkie, snapping the first knuckle perpendicular to the rest of her hand.

The bone broke with the sound of a twig snapping, a pained wheeze escaping from Iggy as her entire body recoiled, twisting back as far as the chains would allow. Hot tears burned her eyes and snot ran from her nostrils as she tried to pull away, agony coursing through her.

“Stop lying to me and this will all be over,” Ling said, leaning over her, addressing her as if a schoolmaster speaking to a naughty child.

Iggy cradled her hand against her body, not daring to look down at her shattered digit. “Why? So you can kill me?”

Looking up, she saw a bit of a smile tug at the corner of Ling’s mouth. “I’m going to kill you regardless. The only question now is how much pain you endure before you get there.”

Glassy-eyed, Iggy looked at him, her top lip peeled up into a sneer, but no sounds escaped.

“Since you claim to have been out fishing yesterday,” Ling said, “I’ll put this in a way that you can understand. Right now you are bait, nothing more to me than bloody chum that I chop into little pieces and toss into the water.

“Once the fish I’m really after shows up, I can dump you overboard and go after him.”

Something in the description, in the words that were chosen, clicked in the back of Iggy’s mind. For the first time she allowed just a hint of defiance to show in her face, unable to hide behind a mask of subservience.

“Him?” Iggy asked, letting Ling know she had picked up on his gaffe.

Ling stared at her a moment before smirking and standing to his full height. He turned to the man in the doorway and said, “She’s not ready to talk yet. Let’s leave her down here for a while longer. Maybe a few more showers will help jog her memory.”

Ling looked down at Iggy again and walked from the chamber. “We’ll talk again soon.”

Iggy waited as his steps fell away, buffeted by the sound of the door closing. “You mentioned something about a large white guy, right?”

She could hear the door stop moving at the sound of the inquiry, the footsteps falling silent.

“Yes?” Ling asked, not bothering to walk back into the room.

“Are you talking about the same one that kicked your ass two days ago?”

There was no forewarning, no sign that the blow was coming. One moment she was staring at the opposite wall, nothing but wet concrete block, a look of triumph on her face. The next she felt the heel of Ling’s shoe connect with the base of her skull, the lights blacking out, her chin rolling forward to rest on her chest.

Inch by inch her unconscious body melted to the side, the chains rattling against the floor as she fell into a twisted heap and lay motionless.

“Jesus,” the associate whispered. “Should we just leave her like that?”

Without looking back, Ling walked away, wet footprints in his wake. “Don’t worry, the water will be back in a few minutes to clean her up.”

Chapter Forty-Three

 

 

Thorn paced back and forth in front of his television, his shoes squeaking against the wooden floor beneath him. His arms were folded across his chest, trying to determine his next move, while nearby Abby sat and watched, diligently tracking his movement with her eyes.

“So he just recognized her from the docks and went after you guys?”

Seated on the couch across from him was Nio, a pale green towel draped over his shoulders. His hair was askew and his eyes red as he sat and stared straight ahead, a glass of water gripped between his hands.

“That’s all I can figure,” Nio said, bitterness in his tone, his gaze aimed at the coffee table in front of him. “Iggy said he saw her the other night, but you emerged from the water before he could approach.”

At that he shifted his attention up to Thorn. “I guess I should thank you for scaring him off when you did.”

Thorn waved the comment aside, continuing to pace. For several days he had operated knowing the Garcia’s were nearby, that the two sides would lend a hand whenever possible.

This pushed things into a different stratosphere, though. Not only had they nabbed the coordinates that were intended for him, they had alerted the target that somebody was on to them.

“Any idea what they’ve done with her?” Thorn asked.

“Best guess, she’s somewhere deep inside that fortress,” Nio said, again focusing on the table between them. “The boat sped off in that direction, though by the time I got to shore it was long gone.”

“And that’s when you called me?” Thorn asked.

Nio glanced up to him before looking away. “I didn’t know anybody else in the area.”

Again Thorn waved the comment off, looking only to get a full understanding of the timeline more than imposing any sort of guilt. Focusing on the clock above the stove, Thorn left Nio in the living room and moved to the kitchen. He pulled his laptop to life and began anew on the surveillance system.

A small jolt of electricity passed through him as the relay feed started the moment he kicked it to life, Ingram’s afternoon mission a success.

“What are you looking at?” Nio asked, walking in from the living room, his bare foot shuffling over hardwood.

“Satellite surveillance,” Thorn said, pulling the cameras to life and zeroing in on the grounds. Using the new point of contact he was able to zoom in more than twenty times closer than before, life size images relayed directly to his laptop.

“Damn,” Nio whispered, his eyebrows rising.

“Yeah,” Thorn muttered, leaning forward and resting his elbows on the counter. Extending his right hand in front of him, he began navigating the camera, swinging around to the back of the house and focusing on the cars parked there.

One at a time he took screen shots, uploading them to his desk top. When he was done with that, he sent them on to Ingram to begin processing before pulling his view out a bit and beginning to scan the grounds for any signs of life.

“What have you been able to glean from this so far?” Nio asked. “Anybody you recognize?”

“We only just got this level of clarity,” Thorn said, shaking his head, not bothering to go into full detail about Ingram or his role.

“Can you go back in time any?” Nio asked.

Again Thorn shook his head, having already had the same thought. “Only in real time. Besides, I’m guessing they took her right through that underground marina you mentioned. Hard to tell if we’d have seen anything anyway.”

Pushing the view around to the top side of the house, Thorn focused in on a few stray guards. All were dressed in black, all seemed to be carrying automatic weapons in their hands. One at a time Thorn waited until they turned toward the camera, getting a full shot of their faces and sending it over as well, a half dozen in total.

Once they were all uploaded and sent he grabbed up his cell phone, calling the first number in his recent call log. It rang just once before Ingram snapped it up.

“Yeah?” he asked, clearly distracted.

“You on the ground yet?” Thorn asked.

“Back in the office already,” Ingram replied, “about to start running those licenses you sent. I see everything is operational?”

“Clear resolution, full view of the grounds,” Thorn said. “Good work, Coach.”

Ignoring the compliment, Ingram asked, “Found anybody yet?”

“Just some low level thugs,” Thorn replied. “I sent you the still shots to start on facial recognition. Most likely they’re in the system, but won’t be real high priority.”

“Right,” Ingram agreed.

“No sign of the Chinaman,” Thorn said. “Or anybody that even resembles somebody in charge.”

On the other end he could hear a string of mumbles that sounded like obscenities, though he couldn’t be certain.

At the moment, he felt much the same.

“Alright,” Ingram said, pushing out a sigh. “Stay on it, keep sending me whatever you find. I’ll be here all night, set an alarm to go off whenever something new comes in.”

Thorn nodded at the directive, shifting his attention over to Nio. For a moment the two stared at each other in silence, neither one wanting to say the words aloud.

“Coach,” Thorn said, his attention still aimed at the man beside him. “Just so you know, we may have to push things up faster than we’d like.”

Facing forward, he could see Ingram stop moving, his focus turning to meet Thorn. “Meaning?”

“Meaning as of this afternoon they have a hostage,” Thorn said, the words tasting acrid in his mouth. “And they know somebody is aware of where they are.”

A look of malevolence passed over Ingram as he ran both hands over his face, glaring at the camera. “Did you?”

“No.”

“Then how?”

“Long story,” Thorn said, shaking his head, the same angry look on his features. “But just believe me when I say it’s very real and we’re now working on a very tight timetable.”

Chapter Forty-Four

 

 

Thorn was asleep on the couch when he felt a hand shake his shoulder. He had taken the first shift on the computer, painstakingly sweeping the grounds for any new faces that might show, sending everything he found directly over to Ingram. By early evening the events of the last few days had begun to catch up with him, his eyes becoming bloodshot, his vision blurring. It was at that point Nio insisted on taking over, his entire being a coiled mass of nervous energy, his fingernails all chewed to the quick and rimmed with blood.

Handing over the controls, Thorn had gone to the couch at nine. Two minutes after that Abby had curled up by his feet. Three minutes later they were both asleep.

The next time his eyes opened he could see it was still dark outside. He rose with a start from the shaking of his shoulder, reaching out and grabbing the front of Nio’s shirt. He held it a moment, a fist coiled by his side, before releasing the fabric.

“Sorry. What time is it?”

“Eleven,” Nio said, leaving his shirt rumpled, seemingly not even noticing it. “I found someone new for you to send to Ingram.”

“Yeah?” Thorn said, swinging his feet to the floor and rubbing his face. His wounds from two nights before were still raw to the touch and he winced as he followed Nio into the kitchen. “Sorry I blacked out there.”

Nio ignored the comment. “Whoever this guy is, he’s not a street-walking thug like the rest of them.”

On screen already was the man’s image, the best angle captured and enlarged to full size. Halfway across the kitchen Thorn stopped, his mouth going dry. “I’ll be a son of a bitch…”

“You recognize the guy?” Nio asked.

Thorn bobbed his head up and down, his gaze never wavering.

“So who is it?”

Another few seconds passed as Thorn stood in silence before snapping to attention. He grabbed up a long-sleeve pullover from the table and snatched his keys from the counter.

“My email password is Abigail1. Get this picture to Ingram right now. He’ll know who it is and send over everything we have.”

“And where the hell are you going?” Nio asked, his face a mask of incredulousness as he watched Thorn move. “That’s my sister out there, I’m going with you.”

“No!” Thorn said, his voice even. “Stay here, keep monitoring. Where I’m going you can’t come. I don’t know how this guy fits in, but I promise you he doesn’t have Iggy.”

A torrent of objections and obscenities followed Thorn as he sprinted through the front door before Nio could give chase. He crossed the yard in five long strides and was into his Explorer, headed for town. In quick order he worked his way through the light evening traffic, taking Route 2 into the heart of the city before catching 93 toward Dorchester.

Twenty minutes after leaving his condo, he pulled up in front of a solid brass gate. It was stretched between two brick columns, moonlight gleaming off of it, a public announce box mounted just outside Thorn’s driver’s side door.

Leaning out through his window, Thorn extended a hand to the call box, his movement stopped halfway by a heavy voice.

“Who the hell are you?”

“I need to see Billy Turner,” Thorn said, his fingers turning upward, raising his hand in a gesture of surrender.

The movement was responded to by the metallic click of a gun being cocked. “Out of the car, right now.”

Feeling his pulse race and his frustration rise, Thorn remained seated. “I’m unarmed and I’m not looking for trouble. I need to see Billy Turner. It’s urgent.”

A second gun cocked somewhere in the darkness. Another voice, just as deep, said, “Out of the car, slow.”

“Look…” Thorn started, but the barrel of a gun appeared through the window, pressing against the side of his head.

One on one, Thorn could have disabled the attempt and had the weapon in hand in fifteen seconds. Knowing that a second gunman was standing nearby – would cut him down the moment he tried anything – kept him from making any movement at all.

“Get out, asshole,” the man with the gun said.

Reaching down with his left hand, Thorn unlatched the door from the outside and pushed it open. He kept both his arms extended above his head and stepped out.

“Damn, big sumbitch, ain’t he?” said the second man said, this time his voice ringing more Appalachian than Irish.

“Sure is. What should we do with him?” the first guard said.

“I got a few ideas,” Appalachian replied, the two guards both sharing a husky laugh.

“Guys, I don’t want any trouble here. It is imperative that I speak to Mr. Turner. Now.”

The man in front of Thorn stepped forward and thrust his gun into the lump on Thorn’s cheek. “Do not talk again.”

Pain shot through Thorn’s face as he gritted his teeth and fought the urge to snatch the gun from the man and beat him with it. There was no doubt the entire incident was being watched by a closed-circuit camera.

At the moment, he could ill afford to have a hoard of angry Irishman swarming him.

The PA box emitted a low burst of static and a voice said, “What’s going on down there, fellas?”

The first guy turned to the box and said, “Nothing we can’t handle. Got some guy here that thinks he really needs to talk to Turner.”

“My name is Robert Myers, I work for Mr. Turner on the docks,” Thorn said to the box.

The guard again stepped forward and again jammed the barrel of his gun into Thorn’s face. “I thought I told you to shut up?”

The pain was so sharp that instinct took over and in one quick swipe, Thorn knocked the gun away from his face. He heard it clatter to the guard as he snapped a hard right into the guard’s nose, hearing the satisfying sound of bone crunching beneath his fist.

Grabbing the man by the scruff of the neck he drew back to fire another shot as a sharp blow landed on the back his skull.

Stars erupted in front of his eyes before giving way to total darkness.

Chapter Forty-Five

 

 

The water was cold, splashing against Thorn’s face and soaking the front of his shirt.

“Wake up, boy,” a gruff voice said, Thorn pulling himself from the darkened fog and opening his eyes

Water dripped from the tip of his nose and ran in rivulets down his cheeks as he raised his head, swinging his gaze about. Best he could tell, he was seated in the middle of an open garage, his hands tied behind him. A trio of large men stood in front of him, two of which he’d just encountered at the gate.

“Not saying much now, huh?” the first guard sneered, a splint running the length of his nose, a bit of bruising already present in the corner of either eye.

“You woke me up. You must have something to say,” Thorn replied, his voice low.

A tinge of red colored the man’s cheeks as he glanced to either side. “Boss is coming out to see you. You so much as think about getting smart with him and you’ll wish you hadn’t.”

Thorn smirked at the tough guy act. “That’s an awful pretty splint you’ve got there.”

The man stepped forward and shot a left cross to Thorn’s jaw, sending the salty taste of blood through his mouth. Thorn swung his head with the momentum of the blow to weaken the impact and came up smiling, blood outlining his teeth. “You realize if I weren’t tied up I’d break more than your nose, don’t you?”

The man’s face flushed as he jerked his gun from his waistband and pointed it at Thorn. “Give me one reason why I shouldn’t waste you right now.”

“Because I said so,” a voice boomed behind him.

Surprise and embarrassment both gripped the man as he lowered the weapon and jammed it back into his waistband. “Sorry, boss, I was just teaching this punk a lesson.”

Billy Turner walked into the garage and stopped alongside the man, examining his face. “Looks like he already taught you one there, Melvin.”

His gaze swept past Melvin and settled on Thorn. “Robert, what the hell is this all about?”

Thorn pushed out a mouthful of bloody spittle, letting it smack on the concrete between his shoes before looking up at Turner. “I pulled up to the front gate, pushed the call button, and asked to see you. The rest is on them.”

An angry scowl crossed Turner’s face as he glared at the men. “Dammit, untie him right now.”

The two men from the gate remained in place as the third moved around behind Thorn and untied his hands. The moment he felt his bindings give way, Thorn took three steps forward, snapping a hard right into Melvin’s face. The blow shattered his splint, dropping him into a heap as droplets of blood dotted the floor around him.

Appalachian stepped forward to intervene, raising his hands to strike. Thorn pivoted and swung a straight heel kick forward, driving the sole of his shoe into the man’s groin.

Like Melvin, he fell to the ground whimpering.

Thorn shifted his gaze to the third man and measured him for a moment before nodding. “Thanks for untying me.”

The man stood frozen in place, his mouth agape. “Don’t mention it.”

“Mr. Turner, I apologize for that, but they had it coming.”

Turner glanced at the two men on the ground and cocked an eyebrow. “And now that it’s over?”

Thorn lowered his hands by his side, turning to face his temporary employer square. “How long will it take for you to get Mr. Cardoza over here?”

If the question surprised Turner in the slightest, he kept it hidden. “Fifteen, twenty minutes?”

“Please do so. It’ll make sense very soon, I promise.”

A wary look crossed Turner’s features as he examined Thorn. “You’ve given me no reason not to trust you. Don’t let this be that reason.”

Thorn nodded at him and waited as Turner made the call. It was obvious from the tone that both men on the line were a little apprehensive, both agreeing after a few moments of back and forth.

When it was complete Thorn and Turner left the others in the garage and made their way to the house. Turner showed him to the main living room and left him there without a word, disappearing to wait for Cardoza by the front door.

The pain in Thorn’s cheek grew steadily as twenty minutes passed, his mind racing to push things into place, before Turner and Cardoza entered together. Both wore tight expressions as they arranged themselves on either end of a sofa, both facing Thorn in an armchair across from them.

“All right, Robert, what’s this all about?” Turner asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.

His posture alone told Thorn he was on very thin ice, that the men in front of him were even more frazzled than he over all that was taking place.

It didn’t make what he was about to do any easier.

“First of all, my name isn’t Robert Myers. It’s Thorn Byrd. I’m from South Carolina and as far as I know, I don’t have a drop of Irish blood anywhere in my lineage.”

The air seemed to be pulled from the room as both men grew rigid in their seats, their faces tightening. Turner was the first to respond in any way, his hands clenching into fists. “What?”

“My name is Thorn Byrd. I work for a company that was hired to look into what’s been going on at the docks.”

Turner raised a hand to object, but Cardoza cut him off.

“Hired? By whom?” Cardoza asked.

“I honestly don’t know,” Thorn said. “One day I was handed a folder with information on the situation and told where to go.”

“Look,” Turner said, all color having drained from his face, his words clipped, “whoever you are, I’m not sure what you’re playing at here, but you better start making sense. Fast.”

Keeping his hands in plain sight, Thorn made a point of remaining as still as possible, not wanting to be threatening in any way. He had no false notions that part of Turner leaving him alone wasn’t to also rotate a crew into place, a cadre of guards no doubt close by.

“I know how this must sound,” Thorn said, “but I assure you I’m telling the truth. Somebody that was concerned about their holdings at the dock contacted my company. They sent me here.”

Cardoza glanced over at Turner. “Tallo?”

Thorn smirked. “Anybody else?”

Turner cast a glance at Thorn and pulled his cell phone from his pocket. He hit a sequence of buttons and waited for it to connect. “Hey, Paul, Billy Turner. How are you?”

He waited a moment and said, “Listen, I’ve got a guy here that says he was hired to do some digging around the docks. You know anything about that?”

Another moment passed, Thorn staring directly at Turner, watching as the older man’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “Why the hell didn’t you mention this to anybody?”

There was another pause, followed by a smirk, the first crack in Turner’s visage since entering the room. “Yeah, he says he has some information for us. I’ll listen to what he has to say and give you a call later.”

The call was ended without signing off, Turner snapping the phone shut in his hand and turning to Cardoza. “He is who he says he is. Hardy went off the books, thought it might be better to have an outside eye take a look at things.”

“Believe me, I wouldn’t have come here unless it was necessary,” Thorn said, drawing the attention of both men toward him.

Each one seemed to take a moment surveying him before Turner nodded slightly. “All right, Thorn. Make it make sense.”

Leaning forward, Thorn laced his fingers together in front of him, closing the gap between the two sides to just a couple of feet. “You now know who called me in, so I’ll skip the back story and get right to it. Either of you guys piss off any Asians lately?”

Both men stiffened in recognition.

“The guy with the fedora,” Cardoza said.

“You know him?” Thorn asked, shifting his focus just a bit to the left.

“We’ve seen a picture,” Turner said. “Nothing more.”

“Damn,” Thorn muttered, shaking his head a bit. “My first night on the job, the night I went in the water, I met one of the refugees afterwards.”

Across from him both men sat in rapt silence.

“He was a guy about my age, said his father had disappeared and he was traveling the same route to try and find him.”

Thorn could sense the strain in the air rise a tiny bit as Cardoza looked across to Turner. “The first container.”

“Mhmm,” Thorn said, nodding. “In the days that followed he and his sister stuck around, poking at things, seeing if anything shook loose before they went home.”

“And did it?” Cardoza prompted.

Drawing in a deep breath through his nose, Thorn said, “During the attack two nights ago, I was able to plant a tracking device on one of the intruders. It led to a place up the shoreline, an estate sitting right on the water.

“Using satellite imagery, I’ve been monitoring all activity at the location.”

Thorn fell silent for a moment, looking each man square. The information he was about to deliver was the reason he had come to the house in person, had endured being poked and assaulted by Turner’s men.

“Most of the people I’ve spotted have been basic goons,” Thorn said. “But this evening somebody new showed up.

“Marc Tallo.”

The name was delivered with zero inflection, no bit of triumph in his voice. He knew the information would have an instant effect on the men, not wanting either one to think he was garnering even the tiniest bit of joy from the exchange.

As far as Thorn was concerned, this was a simple numbers game. He now had a clear idea of how the respective sides were drawn. Working alone, or even with Ingram and Nio, he had no way of going up against whatever lay up the shoreline. If he could somehow tap into the conglomerate resources of Turner and Cardoza though, he might have a chance of both getting Iggy back and ending whatever was going on at the docks.

“Are you sure?” Turner asked.

Beside him Cardoza opened his mouth to speak several times, each time failing to find the words.

“I can have the images sent here right now if you’d like,” Thorn said. “I just didn’t bring any with me for fear of who might see them.”

This time both men fell silent. Cardoza continued to open and close his mouth while Turner chewed at his bottom lip.

“The second night I was here, I planted a shipment of cars that were never touched,” Thorn continued. “I didn’t realize at the time it was because they weren’t his cars.”

This time Turner nodded himself awake, color returning to his cheeks as his blood began to pump. He twisted his head at the neck to face Cardoza and said, “I’ve lost men. You’ve lost a great many Cubans. What has he lost? At most, a few cars? And as it turns out, he probably just drove them to a warehouse and parked them.”

Cardoza bobbed his head in agreement. “That Guido bastard.”

The two men sat in silence for a moment, anger flashing on their faces.

“So how do the brother and sister fit in?” Cardoza asked.

It was a question Thorn had known would be asked before he drove over, a handful of answers passing through his mind. In the end he had settled on a sanitized version of the truth, hoping it would be enough to slide by unnoticed.

“Through a bit of random timing, they happened to find out the coordinates to the tracking device I planted,” Thorn said, stopping there.

“And went snooping,” Turner added.

“And were killed,” Cardoza finished, a sour expression on his face.

“True, right up to the killing part,” Thorn said, his voice low and even. “The young man was able to escape, but they took the girl. Presumably they’re still holding her.”

The two men exchanged a glance, a bit of unease in their expressions.

“Which is why you came to us,” Turner said.

“Yes,” Thorn said, dipping the top of his head an inch. “Out of respect, and to propose a trade.”

Cardoza glanced to Turner before extending a hand toward Thorn and flicking his fingers back at himself, gesturing for him to continue.

“I’ve seen their layout,” Thorn began. “Been over it twenty times from the air. It’s too big for me to go in alone.”

“You need manpower,” Turner said, thinking aloud.

“If you guys can get me into that house,” Thorn said, nodding. “I will bring you Tallo. I won’t harm a hair on his head and I will never speak his name again. I’ll even go on the record and collude any story you want me to.”

Thorn knew that both men had the resources to find and eliminate Tallo whenever they wanted. His only hope was they would realize by allowing him to do it, their fingerprints stayed off of things.

With luck, they might even be able to retain their working relationship with his successor.

Cardoza pursed his lips and turned to look at Turner, weighing the proposal. ”Billy?”

Turner matched the stare a moment before turning to face Thorn. “You understand this is a lot to swallow right now, right?”

“I do.”

“And we’ll of course need confirmation that it is in fact Tallo.”

“Of course,” Thorn agreed.

Once more the two men exchanged a glance before Turner faced forward one last time.

“How many men will you be needing?”

Chapter Forty-Six

 

 

The closed-circuit camera provided a direct view into the warehouse. It was situated high in the center of a side wall at a vantage point that could see the entirety of the vast room beneath it.

On the floor below, filling most of the screen on the opposite end of the camera, men in white coats scurried back and forth. A fleet of armored vans lined the far side of the space, a team of beefy uniformed guards standing beside them.

Seated behind his desk, tucked away in his upstairs office, Bern Gold sat and took in every movement. This night had been a long, long time coming and while he couldn’t be there in person he was not about to let it pass without lending a watchful eye.

Leaning forward, he pressed a red intercom button from the bevy of controls in front of him and said, “The time is near, gentlemen.”

Several of the guards flinched at the sound of his voice on the loud speaker, though the scientists continued to move around as if he hadn’t spoken. It was far from the first time his voice had permeated the workspace, their lack of reaction a conditioned response years in the making.

As the crowd of scientists continued their work, a single man broke away. He strode straight toward the camera and stopped ten feet away from the wall, staring upward with his hands behind his back.

“Crating is being completed as we speak, sir. We will hit our target time with a few minutes to spare,” he said, delivering the information and immediately returning to his work.

“Excellent,” Gold said, not bothering to press the intercom switch. He swiveled his chair to see Ling in his periphery and said, “I trust you have made the arrangements I asked for?”

“I have,” Ling replied. “Teams have been sent to each of the cities you specified. They are ready and waiting for your order.”

“Good,” Gold said, nodding in satisfaction. “The Vaporizers will depart in mere minutes. It will take a day to reach port, another to be disseminated.

“Two days from now you may do whatever you like with the others, just so long as I never hear from them again.”

“I can assure you, your wishes will be carried out to the letter,” Ling said, bowing the top of his head just an inch.

“Excellent,” Gold repeated, shifting back to the monitor. He watched as a large, stainless steel crate was wheeled into view, the massive container taking four men in lab coats to maneuver it. A moment later a second crate came into view, followed by a third.

“Any word yet from our guest?” Gold asked.

“Nothing,” Ling said. “She still maintains she is a tourist visiting with her boyfriend.”

“You are sure she is the woman from the docks and not really a tourist on vacation with her boyfriend?” Gold asked. He didn’t bother to turn and look at Ling, made no effort to show accusation in his tone or features.

He had been paying Ling’s bills for long enough to know the simple question would be enough to get his point across.

“I am most certain,” Ling said, his mouth drawn into a tight line. “I saw her that night.”

“Indeed,” Gold whispered, continuing to watch the monitors. In total seven shiny steel crates had been wheeled from the lab and into position alongside the vans. Once they were lined up the scientists stood back, allowing the guards to load them.

The same man returned to face the camera, his hands still behind his back. “Mr. Gold, we are loaded and ready for departure.”

Gold checked his watch and pressed down the intercom switch. “Three minutes ahead of schedule. Very well done, gentlemen.”

The man bowed to the camera, revealing a crown completely void of hair, as the other scientists shook hands with one another in the background.

“What happens now?” Ling asked.

“Now, there are seven private planes waiting for departure at a nearby airfield. The drivers will deliver the crates there and the planes will take them to their destinations.”

“Very well, sir,” Ling said. He paused a moment to ensure Gold had nothing further for him before turning to leave.

He made it as far as the door before Gold said, “If the girl hasn’t talked by morning, kill her. She’s of no further use to us at this point.”

The corner of Ling’s mouth played up just a bit but he said nothing, disappearing behind the curtain and down the stairs.

Chapter Forty-Seven

 

 

It appeared Nio had not stopped pacing since Thorn left. He practically jumped the moment the front door opened and Thorn entered, a ball of frenetic energy.

”Marc Tallo turned on his own,” Nio said without preamble. “Holy shit.”

“Been doing some reading?” Thorn asked, not commenting on Nio’s opening line.

“Everything your guy sent over,” Nio said, gesturing to the computer. “Should I read anything into that fresh blood on your shirt?”

Grabbing the shirt by the collar, Thorn pulled it over his head, examining the neck, finding two nickel-sized spots of dried blood on the royal blue material. “That son of a bitch.”

“Tallo?” Nio asked, his face twisted up a bit.

“No,” Thorn said, eschewing going into the entire tale. “These were the good guys, actually.”

A disbelieving look fell over Nio’s features, though he remained silent.

“They’re going to help me get inside that monstrosity,” Thorn said. “That’s all that matters right now.”

Without further explanation Thorn began moving through the house and grabbing things he’d need. He pulled out a black long-sleeve Dri-Fit shirt and a pair of black cargo pants, followed by a matching ski cap. Every step of the way Nio was on his heels, Abby just inches behind.

“So you fed them Tallo in exchange for their cooperation?”

“More or less,” Thorn said, pulling the shirt on over his head. “At first they were more than a little skeptical, but after a few phone calls, they accepted I was telling the truth.”

“And were pissed?”

“To put it mildly,” Thorn said. He took up the cargo pants and hefted them in his hands a moment, remembering on sight all the times he’d been forced to wear something similar in the navy. With a twist of the head he cast them aside, instead cinching the drawstring on his gym shorts a bit tighter. “They agreed to get me inside and I agreed to hand him over.”

Just saying it aloud, Thorn knew how close he had come to striking out. If Tallo was the only goal they would have targeted their efforts there, leaving him on his own to approach the sprawling estate. His saving grace was the damage that whoever lived there had already done to their enterprises at the docks.

“When do we leave?” Nio asked, taking a cue from Thorn and pulling on his own shoes. Left with just the clothes he’d been wearing earlier in the afternoon, he looked down at his board shorts and t-shirt before shrugging.

We?” Thorn asked, stopping by the front counter. For a moment he looked at Abby, contemplating if he should make any special arrangements for her should things go sideways. Just as fast he dismissed the notion, knowing Ingram would take care of it if need be.

Instead, he looked at Nio standing across from him, his arms crossed.

“Tallo is just a bit player, nothing more than a foothold at the docks,” Thorn said. “Whoever is pulling the strings is powerful and ruthless. He’s already killed untold numbers and has an army of henchmen armed to do more of the same.”

“She’s my sister,” Nio said, staring back at him.

Heat began to creep up Thorn’s back, his scalp starting to prickle with sensation. “Which is why I set this thing up, to go in after her.”

“She’s my sister,” Nio repeated.

Pulling in a long breath of air, Thorn leveled his gaze on Nio. He had only just met him a week before, knew next to nothing about his background.

“And?” Thorn asked, his voice angrier than he really felt, wanting Nio to get the hint. “I have been in the navy for the past six years. I have training, experience. What do you have?”

Fire passed behind Nio’s eyes as he stared back, incredulous. “Revenge.”

“Absolutely not,” Thorn said, turning his back to Nio and opening his laptop. In a quick flurry of buttons, he pulled the video conference system to life, Ingram appearing on screen just moments later.

“Talk to me,” Ingram said, his attention aimed to the side, clearly distracted.

“We’re going live in an hour,” Thorn said. “Turner and Cardoza are assembling men as we speak, I’m leaving here shortly.”

The information got Ingram’s attention, his body swiveling to face forward. “What are we talking here? Full-on assault?”

“By land and sea both would be my guess,” Thorn said, “but I don’t know yet. Depends how many men they scratch together.”

A low, sharp whistle slid from Ingram as he stared back at Thorn. “Listen, Thorn, this being your first outing and all…”

It was clear where the admonishment was going, Thorn cutting him off halfway through. “Coach, this is far from my first outing.”

“You know what I mean,” Ingram replied.

“And so do you,” Thorn said.

A moment of silence passed as the two stared at each other, Ingram eventually nodding in concession. “This afternoon I fed those images you sent me into Interpol. Three hours ago, they started popping up all over the globe.”

For the past hour Thorn had been so intent on the impending invasion it took a moment for the information to register. Once it did, he leaned forward and pressed his palms into the counter, forcing pieces into place.

“Where?”

“England, Italy, France,” Ingram rattled off. “And those are just so far. My guess is there could be more. Only a fraction of the guys you sent over are accounted for.”

“Shit,” Thorn muttered. “They must have left right after we saw them.”

“That’s probably why you spotted them,” Ingram countered. “They were loading up.”

“Any idea what that could mean?” Thorn said. “Anything unusual going on with the EU? C-STAD?”

Already Ingram’s attention was back on the screen without looking into the camera, his fingers dancing over the keyboard. “Nothing I’m finding so far, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

The movement continued a moment longer before Ingram stopped, his expression grim as he glanced up into the camera. “I don’t suppose there’s any way you can do some looking around while you’re in there too, can you?”

Chapter Forty-Eight

 

 

Over thirty men were assembled by the time Thorn arrived. Dressed in shades of black, green, and gray, they milled about the same garage Thorn had woken up in several hours earlier. They ranged from burly Irishmen to wiry Cubans and included a few of everything in between. Just the sight of them standing there – the way they carried themselves, the tension in the air – stirred things long dormant inside of Thorn.

“You sure you’re up for this?” Thorn asked, his voice low. He had shut the engine off but made no effort to climb out, the engine ticking and the muffled din of conversation the only sounds.

“She’s my sister,” Nio repeated, staring at the crowd, his eyes a little larger than usual.

Thorn considered telling him that that wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but let it pass. “When we get out here, remember, you are an IT expert. You’re coming inside to dig around while I grab Iggy.”

“I got it,” Nio said, his reflection visible in the passenger window as he stared out.

The story was weak and they both knew it, but under the circumstances it was the best they could do. The truth was, Thorn hated the idea of bringing Nio along. It wasn’t some sort of misguided jargon about working better alone, but rather the men he was used to working with were trained and competent.

Nio was a complete wild card. There was no way of knowing how he might react when bullets started humming by, if he would become a complete liability.

Shaking away the idea, Thorn climbed out and examined the lot before him. As a whole they cut an imposing group, all heavily armed, carrying assault rifles and wearing protective vests.

Many gave he and Nio measuring glances as they passed, though nobody said a word.

Together they made their way inside the garage to find Turner and Cardoza leaning over a table, a tall man in black beside them. All three turned and openly stared as they approached, waiting for their arrival.

“You’re early,” Turner said.

“Looks like we’re not the only ones,” Thorn said, motioning to the room.

“No use in waiting, I guess,” Turner said.

Thorn extended them a rolled up print out. “Blueprints of the grounds we pulled from satellite. One of our men was inside yesterday and said they read true to form.”

“You’ve already had a man inside?” Cardoza asked.

“We had to plant an access point to enhance our satellite imagery.”

Turner and Cardoza both nodded, accepting the information without comment.

Turning to the man in black, Thorn extended his hand. “Thorn Byrd. I assume you’re the man in charge tonight?”

The man accepted the handshake. “Bron Delaney. And yes, these men did ask me to lead our part of the operation.”

“Works for me,” Thorn said. “Our main objective is to get inside. How that happens is up to you.”

Cocking an eyebrow, Delaney gave Thorn a measured look, a bit of wariness around the edges.

“Let me guess,” Thorn said, sensing his thoughts and moving to cut them off, “Marines?”

The eyebrow lowered itself back into place as the man looked at Thorn square and nodded.

“I could tell,” Thorn said. “No power struggles from us, you know what you’re doing.”

Hooking a thumb to his right, Thorn said, “This is Nio Garcia, our IT guru. While I’m searching for the hostage, he’ll be poking around to see what exactly this is all about.”

Nio nodded in greeting to the group.

The men nodded in response and Turner said, “You’re certain something large is afoot?”

“In the last three hours, seven different men we flagged from surveillance have shown up in various port cities across Europe. Too much to write off as coincidence.”

“Agreed,” Cardoza inserted.

Setting the blueprints down on the table, Delaney unfurled them as the others grouped up around the table. “We were told the place sits right on the water, so we sent three boats up the coast a few minutes ago to block off any escape routes. They should be in place shortly.

“On foot, we have twenty-eight men, four teams of seven,” he continued, his gaze and his hand both working over the blueprints, taking everything in. “The east side of the property looks to be sheer cliff, so we’ll assume no exit that way.”

He paused there, continuing to look over things, before saying, “We’ll send a team over the wall on the north and south sides. Put the last two right through the main gate.”

He glanced up to Thorn and Nio. “You two will come through the main gate with my teams. Once inside, do what you need to do.”

Thorn glanced at Nio, both nodding in silence.

Chapter Forty-Nine

 

 

As the last two loaded inside, Thorn and Nio were wedged into the semi-darkness of the rear of the Suburban. Sitting with their backs against opposing sides, their legs were pressed against each other as Thorn checked the slide of the Glock Delaney had given him before departure.

In the strained silence of the car he could hear he wasn’t the sole person doing a final clearance, a series of weapon checks sounding out.

The ride took twenty minutes to complete, four Suburbans moving through the desolate late night roads in a convoy. By the time they arrived Thorn could feel sweat running beneath his Kevlar vest, could feel his heart pounding in his chest.

Across from him Nio wore a grim expression that appeared as if he might vomit at any moment. Several words of encouragement crossed Thorn’s mind, though he bit each one back, not wanting their cohorts to hear and deem Nio a liability.

Right now the best thing for both of them was to be as invisible as possible.

The fourth in line to arrive, by the time the rear was opened and Thorn stepped outside, breathing in the cool night air, the north and south teams were already on their way. Little more than black shadows dancing between the trees, the sounds of their equipment was the only way to demarcate they were there at all.

Joining with Delaney and his men, Thorn and Nio fell in with the groups destined for the front gate. Less than two minutes after watching the others disappear into the night they too departed, headed forward at a brisk jog.

In total they covered just under a half mile of ground, the trip taking right at five minutes. By the time they arrived, most of the men were bent at the waist, panting and sweating. Watching them a thought occurred to Thorn, his stomach tightening with the realization that despite their tactical appearance, most were little more than employees of Cardoza and Turner.

Again Thorn thought to say a few words to Nio, to offer him some instruction for once the front gates opened, but opted against it. Anything he offered now would seem like pandering, his own mind settling itself for combat. A product of preconditioning, his breathing evened out and his heart beat took on a steady pace, his nerves tingling with sensation.

For the last few years he had been able to replicate the feeling through football, but since that too was now gone it had been seven long months since the familiar jolt of adrenaline passed through his system. Without trying to fight it he let a smile cross his face, his body finding its natural equilibrium.

Casting aside the holster he’d been given, Thorn fed a live round into the chamber and watched as a pair of charges were placed on the wrought iron hinges of the front gate. Once they were in place, the man applying them jogged back to the group, many of the men turning their backs and covering their ears.

Opting only to close his eyes to protect his night vision, Thorn waited until he heard the small explosives go, the sound of metal ripping away finding his ears.

Like sprinters at the sound of the gun, the entire envoy of men rushed forward at once, spilling through the gate and across the front lawn. For a full fifteen seconds they operated in darkened silence before flood lights spread over the grounds, shrill sirens piercing the air.

A handful of angry Dobermans were the first to react from the house, hurtling themselves the length of the yard with teeth bared. They slammed into the encroaching attackers in an uneven line, launching themselves into the air. Some of the men made the mistake of trying to fight them head on, the enormous animals ripping into them, biting and clawing at every available bit of exposed flesh.

One at a time gunshots began to ring out, the occasional whine of an injured dog audible.

Behind the dogs came a torrent of guards, all dressed in black, handguns extended. Yellow flowers began to punctuate the night as muzzle flashes went off, gunfire exchanged on both sides.

The smell of smoke and gunpowder, the sound of men crying out, only seemed to heighten the primordial instincts within Thorn. Breaking away from the line of intruders, he raised his pace to double time, using the driveway as a path, rushing forward with his weapon raised.

As it stood, the full attention of everybody inside was fixated on the squads pouring onto the grounds. It would be several minutes before anybody thought to piece the invasion to the hostage held somewhere within.

Using that knowledge as fuel, Thorn set a course for the front of the house. To either side men scrambled over the fence and joined in the fray, flashes of gunfire illuminating the grounds like hundreds of oversized fireflies.

Following the ribbon of black asphalt through the front grass, Thorn sprinted for the house, abandoning any pretense of shooting and rushing forward. Only once did he slow his pace long enough to hoist up a shotgun from a fallen guard, trusting that the footsteps he heard behind him belonged to Nio.

Underfoot the ground changed from blacktop to marble, Thorn taking the stairs three at a time as he scaled the front steps and made his way to the door.

Chapter Fifty

 

 

Ling was en route to the cellar when the alarms sounded. In his hand he carried an industrial grade Taser and on his face was the faintest semblance of a smile.

He was going to have fun.

When Gold gave the go ahead to dispatch of the girl, Ling thought hard on the best way to do it. A simple shooting would be lazy and strangulation would be too easy for a victim as worn down and helpless as she was.

It was then it occurred to him that she was trapped in a pool of water, metal shackles attaching her to the wall. He wouldn’t even have to enter the room. He could simply open the door, fire the electrodes, and watch as she slowly writhed in agony to her death.

Once it was over and the smell of singed meat hung in the air, he’d toss the Taser inside and bar the door forever, locking her inside as he had so many others over the years. The cellar had been designed with dozens of rooms originally meant as servant quarters and storage, though Ling had found a far more functional use for them.

Filling one more would be of no consequence.

He had just pushed through the door to the lower levels, his foot inches above the first stair, when the sirens erupted through the house. Another fifteen seconds and he would have been entombed in concrete, no sound penetrating it. For just a moment that very thought entered his mind as he stared with borderline longing at the black maw below before turning and sprinting for Gold’s office.

Bypassing pausing for acknowledgement, he swung through the heavy tapestry to find Gold’s bank of monitors displaying various camera views of the grounds. “What have we got?”

Without turning around, Gold stared at the monitors, his fingers laced before him. “I’m afraid this time it looks like the real deal.”

Ling walked forward until the front of his legs pressed against the desk and took inventory of the images before him. “Military?”

“I don’t think so,” Gold said. “We’ve done nothing to earn their wrath.”

Using a few controls on his desk, he pulled up a particular camera feed, zooming in on the last of the intruders struggling to make it over the wall. “Besides, these men are far from professionals.”

Ling snorted, ire rising within him as he watched the bloated men wrestle themselves over the exterior fence. “You want me to take care of it?”

Gold returned the image to its normal size and motioned toward the bank of monitors. “Right now they’ve got teams sweeping in from the north, west, and south. Boats are circling outside our dock. I think the prudent choice would be for us to run and fight another day.”

A flash of heat rose to Ling’s face as he stared at the back of Gold’s head. “Are you sure?”

Clicking through more camera views, Gold said, “They may not be military, but they are certainly armed like it. Our plans are too important and too eminent to do something foolish.”

Halfway through the slide show an image caught Ling’s attention, his eyes narrowing. “Go back. Zoom in.”

Ignoring the tone, Gold did as Ling asked, inflating the previous image. Before them were two young men, neither seeming overly interested in the fighting as they tore up the driveway and headed for the door.

“That son of a bitch,” Ling said, malevolence heavy in his voice.

“I take it that is who’s been causing you so much trouble?” Gold asked.

“I am going to kill him,” Ling hissed, his voice no more than a whisper.

“He’s barely old enough to shave,” Gold quipped.

Ling’s eyes shined with fury beneath his fedora, his fists clinched in balls by his side. “Stay here, I’ll be back.”

The entire bank of monitors cut to black as Gold wheeled around to face Ling. “No unnecessary risks. Right now we must go.”

Chapter Fifty-One

 

 

Ahead in the distance a handful of servants and maids could be seen running about, though the house was almost silent. Thorn took the lead, going forward with Nio behind him. Moving slowly, he peeked into every room he passed, clearing it before heading on. Even without the guns in his hands and the adrenaline in his system the task was simple, all of the rooms void of life, most not containing a stick of furniture.

It was apparent within minutes that the place was more a headquarters than a residence.

Five tense minutes passed as Thorn led them from the front door toward a circular main foyer in the middle of the house. Behind them the front door was left open, the occasional burst of light or sound drifting through. Ignoring them, Thorn honed his focus in on their immediate surroundings, waiting for a surprise attack, checking each doorway for a trip wire that never appeared.

By the time they reached the foyer Thorn could feel moisture dripping along the nape of his neck, the heavy Kevlar vest saturating his shirt. Ignoring the burn of sweat reaching his eyes, he pushed out into the open space, an epicenter for the entire mansion around them. Stretched more than fifty feet across, it was adorned with only a chandelier hanging from the ceiling, a series of hallways shooting in various directions around it.

“Smoke,” Thorn said, the first word either had uttered since entering.

Pausing, Nio sniffed at the air, his gaze darting about. “Where?”

Without answering Thorn pinched his eyes tight, swinging his gaze around. It took him almost thirty seconds to find it, just the slightest tendril of white easing its way from a ridge in the wall, working up toward the vaulted ceiling above.

Following it down he was able to decipher the hidden stairwell positioned between two hallways, the walls and décor blended to hide any trace of its presence.

“Stairs,” Thorn said, pushing forward. In his left hand he carried the Glock, his finger inside the trigger guard, weapon extended before him. In his right he gripped the barrel of the shotgun, carrying it like a baseball bat by his side.

At the bottom of the stairwell Thorn stopped, seeing the smoke grow thicker as it continued drifting upward, a hanging tapestry stifling most of the flow. In another life approaching such a scenario would have been a job for multiple people, an advance team with men behind to cover his rear. Given neither, he took the stairs two at a time, stopping just below the top and using the butt of the shotgun to peel back the curtain separating him from whatever lay inside.

A thick billow of smoke poured out as he kept himself pressed low to the ground, the caustic scent burning his nose. Little by little the initial plume thinned down as Thorn left the shotgun lying in place and crept inside, the Glock still stretched out before him.

The room was small, much smaller than any of the others he had cleared since being inside. A large desk dominated the space, a vast bank of monitors and electronics covering the back wall. The smoke seemed to emanate from somewhere in the sea of gadgetry, though Thorn couldn’t determine where.

Two leather armchairs sat across from the spread, the walls devoid of any signs of life. The only other item of any note was a silver door along the side, an array of buttons along the side of it demarcating it as a private elevator.

“Shit,” Thorn mumbled, rising to full height and pushing the tapestry aside. A burst of fresh air passed over his skin as most of the smoke filtered out, Nio standing just a few steps below.

“Iggy?”

“No,” Thorn said, shaking his head. “We just missed whoever was here. Looks like they initiated a self-destruct.”

“Shit,” Nio echoed, stepping into the room and looking around.

“Stay here,” Thorn said, “see what you can do with all this. I’ll go find her.”

At the sound of the words Nio’s hand shot out, his brown fingers offset against Thorn’s black shirt. They squeezed tight and pulled Thorn back an inch, Nio leaning in tight.

“No way in hell. I’m here for her, that’s it.”

Glancing down at the hand on his arm long enough to make a point, Thorn stared back at Nio. “We have two objectives here and limited time. I can’t do them both and I’m better at one than the other.

“You stay here. I’ll go find her.”

The words weren’t issued as a threat, though Thorn made sure his intent was clear. Given the choice between a bank of smoking circuitry and a hostage situation, he was much better suited for going on the hunt. That was true even in normal circumstances, the adrenaline surging through him only exacerbating it.

The hand remained on his arm another moment before being released, Nio giving him a light shove forward. “Do not come back here without my sister.”

The words still hung in the air as Thorn took up the shotgun and bounded down the stairs, the tapestry swinging back into place behind him. His feet touched down only twice before he was back on the main floor, jogging out into the center of the room and staring in every direction.

Despite having spent hours staring down at the layout of the grounds, he had no indication of where anything inside the home was located. The hallways were too many, the options too vast, for him to ever decipher it on his own. Instead he stood in place and turned in a slow circle, making two full revolutions before finding what he was looking for.

“Hey! Wait!”

At the opposite end of one of the hallways were two people, a man and woman, both dressed in black. The woman stared in abject fear as he bounded down the hall at them, the man beside her tugging in earnest on her arm.

“Wait!” Thorn repeated, the word sounding more harsh than intended, reverberating down the hall as he sprinted forward.

In front of him the couple pushed on for the door on the opposite end, the man urging his wife forward. Thorn continued to run as hard as he could, watching as they reached the door and began to peel it back before raising the Glock and putting a pair of rounds into it. Splinters of wood sprayed back into the man’s face as they both stopped, the woman pushing out a shrill scream. Both of her hands shot up to either side as she went rigid, her voice a yelp as she managed, “Please, don’t shoot!”

The man by her side turned, his cheeks flushed, disgust on his face. “For Christ’s sakes man, we’re unarmed. We only work here!”

Matching the expression, Thorn slowed to a walk, closing the last few feet between them. “I’m not going to shoot you.”

The man’s visage made it apparent he didn’t believe a word Thorn said, though he remained silent. Tears pooled beneath the woman’s eyes as she continued to stare at the guns in Thorn’s hands and said, “Please, we haven’t done anything.”

Ignoring the comment, Thorn drew in a deep lungful of air, slowing the breathing in his chest. “If somebody were being kept prisoner here, where would they be?”

The question seemed to catch both unawares, each staring at him as if he were crazy.

“Please,” Thorn said, focusing on the man. “I don’t have time to explain. The Asian guy, with the fedora, where would he hide someone?”

“You mean Ling?” the woman asked, raising a hand to her chest, a trace of fear crossing her features.

“Yes, Ling,” Thorn said, saying the name out loud to cement it in his mind. “If he had a prisoner, where would he take her?”

It was clear from the posture both took that they were familiar with Ling and the work he did. It was also quite apparent that they had seen it firsthand, their entire stance shifting at the mention of his name.

“He’s not here, he’ll never know,” Thorn said, not sure if either statement was true but needing to put them at ease. If there was any hope at him extracting the information it had to come now, while there was still some bit of time remaining.

“Couple days ago,” the woman said, glancing to the man by her side before lowering her voice to a whisper, “one of the other maids said she saw Ling carrying a young girl in a bikini. I didn’t think it was true though.”

Thorn waited a moment for her to continue, and when no words escaped, prompted, “Where?”

Once more the two exchanged a doleful look, the woman leaning forward at the waist and burying her face in the man’s chest. On reflex, the man reached up and wrapped an arm around her head, his fingers laced through her hair.

“There’s an underground tunnel system two halls over,” he said. “I’ve never been there, none of us have, but we’ve all heard rumors.

“If she’s here, she’s down there.”

Chapter Fifty-Two

 

 

Without pausing to try the handle, Thorn slammed the heel of his foot into the door. It exploded backward on contact, sending splinters of wood and sawdust flying as it swung open and he stepped through.

With the Glock raised in one hand and the shotgun in the other, Thorn emerged onto a long hallway. The walls were made of solid concrete block, a row of single bulbs hanging from the ceiling casting an eerie glow. Every five or six feet stood a plain steel door, many appearing to have not been opened in years.

“Sonuva…” Thorn muttered, stepping past the first few doors slowly, his pace picking up speed.

A dozen doors filed by on either side as Thorn reached a break in the hall, a wider thruway extended out to the left. Peering the length of it, he could see there were no doors, but rather a series of hallways like the one he had just traversed.

Feeling his pulse increase, Thorn positioned himself in the middle of the lane and walked forward. Going as slow as the situation would allow he walked forward, his shoes making no sound against the brushed concrete floor.

Every ten yards a new hallway extended to either side, Thorn approaching slowly and extending a glance in each direction. His only hope was somewhere in the labyrinth there was some sign of where Iggy might be located, some small indicator to point him in the right direction.

Otherwise there was no way he could hope to check every door, simple math adding into the hundreds as he pushed past one hallway after another.

The indicator he was hoping for came on the fifth hallway.

Twenty yards down on the left a lone guard sat on a metal folding chair, his legs extended before him, feet crossed at the ankles. He didn’t so much as glance up as Thorn peered around the corner and spotted him, his attention aimed on a magazine open on his lap.

Retreating back a few steps, Thorn pressed his body back against the wall, drawing in even breaths through his nose as he cast a look around. There was no way for him to cover the open ground between he and the guard without putting himself into the open for too long a period of time. He could attempt to shoot the man where he sat, but in the event he missed, he would be alerting the guard to his presence, starting either a shooting match in an enclosed space or a true hostage situation as the man stepped inside with Iggy.

The thick concrete construction and position beneath ground had served as sound insulation for him thus far, stifling his entry through the front door and any stray noises on his approach. Assuming that he was now close enough to be heard, Thorn unstrapped the heavy Kevlar vest and pulled it over his head, hefting the thick black material in his hand. Bouncing twice on the balls of his feet he raised it high above his head and smashed it down against the concrete floor, the wicked sound echoing down the hall.

Leaving the vest on the floor, Thorn pressed himself back against the corner of the intersection. Measuring the seconds, he waited as the sound of steps appeared and grew closer, gripping the barrel of the shotgun in his right hand. Waiting until the sound was so close it threatened to overtake him, he spun out on one knee and swung the shotgun as hard as he could, lashing out just a foot and a half above the ground.

The stock of the gun connected square with the guard’s knee, the sickening crunch of splintered wood and bone ringing out. A pained cry shot from the man as his legs crumbled beneath him, his body pitching forward across the floor. Screams of anguish rolled through the tunnel as Thorn stepped forward and drew up the shotgun, smashing the butt of it into the man’s jaw. On contact, the man’s eyes rolled back as his head dropped to the floor, a string of bloody spittle oozing from his mouth into a pool by his ear.

For a moment Thorn stood over him, feeling the wrath within, aching to send another decisive blow at the man, before taking a step back. With the toe of his shoe he kicked the man’s weapon away, the gun disappearing into the darkness, the sound of metal scraping over the ground fading within seconds.

Leaving the man lying in the center of the intersection, Thorn turned and ran for the chair positioned along the wall. Grasping the metal handle on the door beside it he wrenched upward, the groan of rusted metal echoing out as the lock disengaged and the door cracked open a few inches.

Using his shoulder, Thorn pressed his upper body through and forced the door all the way open, the sight before him bringing another stab of anger to his stomach.

Lying in a heap in the middle of the floor was Iggy, still wearing barely more than a bathing suit. Water dripped from pipes lining the room and stood in pools on the floor, drenching her body. Twin shackles were secured to either wall, keeping her arms extended from her side, forcing her to hold a pose like a macabre crucifix.

“Jesus,” Thorn muttered, dropping the shotgun and stepping inside. He reached Iggy in three short steps, pushing back wet hair from her face. “Iggy?”

There was no flicker of life as Thorn stared into her face, taking in the black and purple bruising that marred much of her, the lines of dried blood that ran from both nostrils and painted her lips maroon.

“Iggy?” he repeated, pressing his index and middle finger to her throat, just the slightest hint of a pulse present.

Drawing his mouth tight to keep from screaming in anger, Thorn stood. For a moment he considered going back to the guard for the keys to the shackles before thinking better of it and lifting her right arm from the floor. Placing the muzzle of the Glock against the last link in the chain he pulled the trigger, the shot like a cannon blast in the tiny room, reverberating off the walls as it clattered to the ground, water splashing against Thorn’s legs.

Holding Iggy’s limp body against him, Thorn moved to the opposite side, pulling her a foot to his left to raise the chain from the floor. Pressing her face into the crook between his neck and shoulder, he removed the second chain in the same way, the shot leaving his ears ringing.

Not once was there the slightest hint of a response from Iggy.

Chapter Fifty-Three

 

 

Half of the screens in the room were active as Thorn entered, the remainder still blacked out. In front of them Nio sat pecking away at a keyboard, his back to the outside world as he worked.

“What have you found?” Thorn asked, lifting Iggy over the arm of a chair and setting her down atop it.

At the sound of his voice Nio spun around, shock on his features giving way to fear as he stared at his sister. “Oh, sweet Jesus.”

“She’s alive,” Thorn said, bypassing all other discussion. “What have you got?”

Behind the desk Nio rose, moving to come closer.

“No,” Thorn said, holding a hand out toward him, stopping Nio’s progress. “Not right now. What have you got?”

For a moment Nio’s features darkened, incredulity creeping in.

“She’s alive, but we have to hurry,” Thorn said. “Get what you can and let’s get her out of here.”

“No need,” Nio said, staring back at Thorn, seemingly undecided how much anger to aim in his direction. “England, France, and Italy were just the beginning. They’ve also marked Germany, Russia, and Japan.”

“For what?” Thorn asked.

“No clue,” Nio said. “This guy was smart, destroyed damn near everything.”

“That it?” Thorn asked.

“Like I said,” Nio replied, shaking his head, “destroyed damn near everything.”

With a nod of his head Thorn accepted the information, turning and jerking the tapestry down from the bar hanging across the top of the stairwell. Spreading it across the second chair, he placed a hand behind Iggy’s knees and neck and lifted her onto it, wrapping her up like a misshapen Christmas present.

Nio watched for a moment before turning back to the screens, his body going rigid as he stared at them, his eyes widening to twice their usual size. “Oh, shit.”

“What?” Thorn asked, standing back from Iggy and looking across. Twisting at the waist, he saw past Nio to the screens behind him to see red numerals counting backwards from a minute.

“They’re going to blow the whole damn place,” Thorn whispered. In front of him fifty-eight seconds became fifty-five, working steadily backwards.

In one movement he lifted Iggy from the chair and bounded down the stairs, crossing the foyer in long strides. Not once did he glance back over his shoulder, trusting Nio was doing the same. Raising the oversized package in his arms high against his chest, he churned his legs as fast as he could, the padded carpeting of the front hallway soft underfoot as he covered swaths of ground with each stride.

Bursting through the front doorway, Thorn’s shoes smacked against marble as he hurtled himself forward. His legs began to burn and his breath become short as he eschewed the driveway, cutting a straight path across the open lawn.

Around him the fighting had subsided, bodies in suits and faux military dress strewn across the lawn. Leaving them where they lay, he cut a path toward the front gate, Nio’s voice calling out behind him, “It’s going to blow!”

An instant buzz seemed to pass through the yard at the sound of the warning, men that were just moments before lying comatose stirring to life. Many of them stared slack jawed at the odd crew sprinting past, glancing between the mansion and the front gate.

“The house is rigged!” Thorn pushed out, his throat on fire. “Go! Go! Go!”

This was the notice many of them needed, at once handfuls of men turning to run. A few attempted to heft wounded to their feet, men on both sides desperate to put as much distance between themselves and the house as possible.

Bypassing any further warning, Thorn set his jaw and pushed as hard as he could, counting off the seconds in his head. When his internal clock got close to zero he chose the thickest tree in his path, curling his body behind it.

Cradling Iggy close, he ensured she was completely enveloped, covering her head with his hands as a Hollywood explosion erupted behind him. A percussive boom sent a torrent of heat and debris past them, the tree offering only nominal protection as chunks of wood and concrete slammed through the leaves overhead.

A moment later scattered bits began to fall from the sky, the remnants of items lifted up, rather than out, from the center mass.

Hunkering forward at the waist, Thorn put his torso between Iggy and the falling shrapnel, remaining silent as pieces landed on his back. Ranging in size from pinpricks to hot nails, they cut into his skin as he set a course for the front gate, drawing grunts of pain as he went.

Delaney was waiting as Thorn approached, two of the Suburbans already pulled up behind him. A small cluster of men was grouped close by, those that weren’t injured openly staring in wonder at the spectacle of the demolition.

“We need to get her out of here,” Thorn said, standing erect and looking at Delaney, smoke and sweat burning his eyes, his back aching from falling debris.

Stepping forward, Delaney peeled back the top of the tapestry, looking at the ghostly visage of Iggy folded up within.

“Damn.”

“She needs help,” Thorn said, his voice low in between deep breaths of air.

Casting a glance to Nio bent at the waist beside them, Delaney asked, “Can you drive?”

The only response was a nod, Nio rising to full height with his hands on his hips, still fighting to bring in air.

“Take the second one,” Delaney said, motioning over his shoulder toward the Suburbans waiting nearby. “We’ve got it from here.”

Chapter Fifty-Four

 

 

“Coach, we need a doctor,” Thorn said into the cell phone, holding it with one hand as he cradled Iggy with the other.

“Are you hurt?” Ingram asked, alarm in his voice.

“I’m fine,” Thorn said, staring out the window as the city lights of Boston drew nearer, not bothering to bring up the tenderness of the wounds on his back.

“The hostage,” Ingram said, a statement more than a question. “You got there in time.”

“Just barely,” Thorn said. “You see everything on satellite?”

“Saw you go in, stay twelve minutes, and exit carrying a rug before the place was blown to hell.”

“An attempt to try and stave off hypothermia,” Thorn said, opting against going into the full explanation.

“And the shadow you had following you?” Ingram asked, the tiniest bit of inflection in his voice.

Glancing to his left, Thorn saw Nio in his periphery. At some point he would need to explain the entire situation to Ingram, from meeting the Garcias on the docks to their involvement at the mansion.

Now just wasn’t the time for it.

“He’s driving now,” Thorn said. “An ally. Can you have a doctor at the house? Should we take her somewhere else?”

The abrupt change of course pushed Ingram away from the topic of Nio, a clattering of his keyboard letting Thorn know he was back on task. Silence came over the line a moment before Ingram said, “Someone will be there by the time you arrive.”

Both sides dropped off the line without saying farewell, Thorn peeling back the top corner of the rug to look in on Iggy. Despite the heavy tapestry and the heat blasting in the car her skin was still pale blue, her eyes shut tight. Tracing a finger down her cheek Thorn found her body temperature to be a degree or two above ice.

The drive took just under half an hour with Thorn directing and Nio leaning on the gas. Otherwise neither one spoke as they drove on, willing the miles by.

At half past three in the morning, they pulled into Thorn’s driveway to find a black sedan sitting on the curb. As they piled out of the Suburban, an older man in a tweed sport coat and matching pageboy cap emerged from the car, a gray leather medical bag in hand. He walked directly to Thorn and peeled back the tapestry, looking in before even introducing himself.

“What happened?”

“No idea, for sure,” Thorn said. “When I got there she was chained up in the middle of a room that looked like an irrigation chamber. I know she’s ice cold and beaten to hell.”

“Let’s get her inside,” the man said, motioning Thorn and Nio toward the front door.

Stepping inside, Thorn carried Iggy straight up the stairs and placed her atop the bed, Nio, the doctor, and Abby all following up in order.

Taking up a post beside the bed, the doctor placed his bag down and removed his cap from his head, his pate clear of any hair. “My name is Isaac Whittle. You may refer to me as anything but Whittle Guy or Whittle Old Man, understood?”

The thought had never entered Thorn’s mind. “Uh, yeah.”

“Good,” he said, nodding as he shrugged out of his jacket. “The first thing I need is for you get me some hot water bottles. If you don’t have those, some towels soaked in warm water will do.”

On command Thorn disappeared into his bathroom, setting the shower to the warmest setting. Nio entered behind him as he took a handful of towels from the corner cabinet and handed them across, Nio wetting them and handing them back as Thorn squeezed the excess down the sink. When they were done Nio killed the water, Thorn carrying them back out to Whittle.

“All right, now if you could lift her up, please,” Whittle said.

Thorn placed his hands behind her knees and neck and lifted her several inches off the bed as Whittle lined the towels beneath her. When they were in place Thorn lowered her down atop them, watching as Whittle wrapped them across her.

“Your friend’s body temperature is dangerously low,” Whittle said as he worked. “Until we get that brought back up, there isn’t a lot else we can do.”

Whittle draped the tapestry back over her, trapping the warmth of the towels beneath the heavy fabric. “Thank you, that’s all I need from you right now.”

It was clearly a dismissal, though Thorn didn’t feel the slightest bit of offense at it. Instead he tapped Nio on the shoulder and motioned for him to follow downstairs, whistling for Abby as he left.

“Thank you,” Thorn said, Nio murmuring the same, as the three traversed back downstairs just minutes after arriving.

Moving straight to the computer, Thorn opened the program and called the video conferencing to life. To the side he could see Nio staring up the stairs, a forlorn expression on his face.

“She’s in good hands. She’s going to be fine.”

Nio nodded, but said nothing.

“Is the doc there?” Ingram asked, jerking Thorn’s attention back toward the sound of his voice.

“He’s with her now,” Thorn said, nodding. “Thank you for getting someone here so fast.”

“We have people on standby for this sort of thing, it kind of comes with the line of work,” Ingram said by way of an explanation.

“Still, thanks,” Thorn said.

Waving a hand in front of him, Ingram stared into the camera and said, “Right after you guys went in, a ground-level retraction roof opened and a helicopter got away.”

A low, sharp whistle slid from between Thorn’s lips as he shook his head. “I wondered how they got out if we had the grounds and docks covered. Must have scuttled the electronics and went airborne.”

“I was lucky,” Ingram said. “I just happened to be on the back half of the house when the door started to open, so I zoomed in close. Was able to get a couple of shots before everybody boarded.”

“Any idea where they were headed?”

“Nothing definitive,” Ingram said. “They took off on a course to the northwest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”

Thorn nodded at the assessment, knowing it could have been nothing more than a ruse. Once airborne they could have readjusted, or landed somewhere briefly before switching aircraft. More than an hour had now passed since departure, giving them quite a head start in any direction.

“I’m sending over the pictures I have now,” Ingram said, a moment later an incoming email making a sound as it hit the inbox.

Minimizing the video screen, Thorn pulled the images up, four in total.

The same three people were present in all four. On the right was a man dressed entirely in black with a fedora covering his head. From the high angle no more details could be made out, but it didn’t take more than a glance to know who he was.

Beside him was an older man with grizzled white hair and a Magnum P.I. floral shirt pushing a wheel chair. Seated in the chair was an elderly man with thick white hair and a well-cut suit.

“What are you finding on these guys?” Thorn asked, pulling Ingram back up.

Ingram was waiting for him, spreading his hands out wide. “This is the first we’ve seen or heard of the guy in the floral shirt. His face didn’t hit anything even close in the NSA database. No dice there.

“The man in black we assume to be the same Asian guy you’ve been running into for a while now, but still nothing concrete.”

“Ling,” Thorn interjected.

“Excuse me,” Ingram said, pausing mid-sentence.

“His name is Ling. I stopped a servant in the house to ask directions and they let it slip.”

Ingram scribbled the name down on the printout of the picture in front of him. “I’ll run a search for it. Maybe a name and a partial picture will be enough to get us going.”

“And the third guy?” Thorn asked.

“Nothing,” Ingram said. “We have to assume he’s the boss. Sharp dress, waiting helicopter, Ling by his side.”

“If he’s not the boss, he’s pretty damn high up,” Thorn agreed.

“I ran his picture through NSA and didn’t get a firm ID, but I got something interesting. We have an 83% match with a Yuri Chekov.”

Confusion fell across Thorn’s face as he chewed on the information, trying to force it into place. “Should that name be ringing a bell with me?”

”Doubtful,” Ingram said, his attention moving to the side as he clicked through things on his own screen. “Yuri Chekov was a Russian diplomat to the United States for over thirty years.”

“Was? As in he’s dead?”

“Was, as in he’s retired. The man is pushing eighty years old,” Ingram said.

Nothing about the information seemed to make sense, especially almost thirty years after the end of the Cold War. For a moment Thorn processed the situation in silence, his face contorted as he pondered it. “You think this could be our guy?”

“No,” Ingram said, shaking his head. “Like I said, there’s only an 83% match. I’m looking at the images side by side right now and unless this guy had his nose done and some serious hair transplants, they’re definitely not the same person.”

“So how does he fit in?” Thorn asked.

“I don’t know,” Ingram replied. “Maybe he doesn’t, hard to be sure. I’m just telling you what the scan returned.”

Once more Thorn fell silent, glancing to Nio and up the stairs, the shadow of Whittle moving about along the ceiling. “Where is Chekov now?”

“Again, he’s retired,” Ingram said. “Current address is in the Catskill Mountains, upstate New York.”

“Upstate New York,” Thorn said, mumbling the words aloud as he stared at the clock on the wall. “It would take me six hours to drive there from here. Can you get me in the air and down there quicker than that?”

Thorn turned his attention back to the screen to see Ingram’s eyebrows rise in surprise. “You want to fly down and meet with Chekov?”

Thorn met the stare, saying nothing. He knew it didn’t make the most sense in the word, but right now it was the closest thing he had to a lead. The mansion was obliterated, Iggy was being taken care of. There was no way Ling would be showing up at the docks again soon.

If there was any way for him to get out in front of whatever this global scheme was, he had no choice but to tug on the only thread remaining.

“I’ll set it up,” Ingram said, a tiny sigh of defeat in his voice. “Text you the details straightaway.”

“Thank you,” Thorn said, still leaning forward over the screen.

“Anything else?” Ingram asked.

“Yeah,” Thorn said, again glancing to Nio. “Germany, Russia, Japan.”

As he spoke Ingram, jotted the names down in order. “Okay, what about them?”

“Those three in addition to England, France, and Italy we already knew,” Thorn said. “It was all we were able to glean out before the self-destruct kicked in, but whatever this is has major reach.”

“Damn,” Ingram said, drawing the word out several seconds in length. “That’s a random list if I’ve ever seen one. Any idea how they tie together?”

Chapter Fifty-Five

 

 

The last thing Thorn did before he left was sneak upstairs and take three pictures of Iggy. He felt horrible doing it, even more so when Nio cocked open an eye from the couch afterwards, but had a feeling it might be very necessary. He then stopped on his way to the airfield to have them printed out.

Thorn arrived at Hanson Air Force base at six-thirty to find the world already very much awake and active. Scores of men were out jogging in formation, handfuls of smaller planes taking off and landing in a series of drills. Pulling up to the front gate, he flashed his ID and was directed to the back airstrip where he found a Cessna out and waiting on the runway.

Whatever favors Ingram had called in, they were big ones.

A solitary man was sitting in the hangar as Thorn parked and climbed out. Dressed in tan slacks and white shirt under a brown leather jacket, he folded up the newspaper he’d been reading and stood. “You must be Thorn.”

“Yes, sir,” Thorn said.

“Major Alan Thompson, retired, United States Air Force,” he replied, extending a hand.

Thorn returned the shake, the grip strong despite the white hair and wrinkles of the man’s face. “Thorn Byrd, United States Navy, also retired. Thanks for helping out on such short notice.”

“Bah,” Thompson said, waving his hand. “I’m up in the air every morning anyhow; this way I have a specific place to go and get paid to do it.”

The two both laughed as Thompson motioned toward the plane and they climbed in. Thorn took the co-pilot’s chair, nestled amid a sea of gadgetry, as Thompson worked the controls.

The ride to Phoenicia, New York, right in the heart of the Catskills, took a little over an hour from lift-off to landing. Most of the trip was spent in light conversation, Thorn responding to the banter while at the same time trying to plan the best way to approach Chekov.

Beneath him he could see nothing but wide swaths of green, the world just beginning to embrace the majesty of summer.

Thompson landed the Cessna on a private airstrip outside of town, remaining with the plane as Thorn climbed into a sedan Ingram had waiting for him. The driver nodded as he slid in, remaining silent as they covered the last few miles to the Chekov home.

A quarter mile from his destination, Thorn stopped the driver and climbed out. It was still barely eight o’clock in the morning and though the intention was to arrive unannounced, he also wanted to be as non-imposing as possible.

For a family having spent thirty years working with two opposing governments, nothing would arouse suspicion more than arriving in an unmarked black automobile.

The morning air was still and damp as Thorn walked along the one lane road and turned into the Chekov’s driveway, gravel crunching beneath his feet. The scent of alfalfa filled his nose and in the distance he could hear a mule braying.

Ahead, he could see the home sitting alone against the skyline. Constructed of stone and stucco, it managed to exude warmth and wealth simultaneously, Thorn guessing the combination to be a pretty accurate depiction of who he’d soon meet.

Keeping his gaze focused for any signs of life, he walked forward in a slow and unassuming manner. With the exception of two older model cars parked outside, there appeared to be nobody nearby, though he knew from years of experience that that didn’t mean somebody wasn’t watching.

Going right for the front door, Thorn exhaled and knocked on the dark-stained oak. Two minutes of complete silence passed, punctuated by his knocking a second and then a third time. He waited a full five more before cursing under his breath and giving up on the door. He considered peeking in a few windows before dismissing the notion and turning back toward the gravel drive.

He made it over thirty yards before the door burst open and an elderly woman with water dripping from her snow white hair leaned out, waving a hand overhead at him. “Wait. Wait!” she called, her accent thick. “I’m so sorry, I was in the bath and hurried as fast as I could.”

“Oh, no, ma’am,” Thorn said, turning and trotting back toward the house, his steps quick shuffles just shy of a full jog. “The fault is mine for showing up without calling.”

The woman smiled, displaying a grid of uneven teeth. “Nonsense. It’s not every day we get visitors here. Please, do come in.”

Thorn accepted her invitation and stepped inside onto a stone foyer. The home smelled of rich wood and baked bread, the style older but very well kept.

“Now, what can I do for you, young man?” the woman asked, taking up a towel from the back of a chair and going to work on her wet hair.

“First let me ask, is this the Chekov home?” Thorn opened.

“Why it most certainly is, and has been for over twenty years now. My name is Sonia Chekov.” The last sentence was delivered with no small amount of pride, her smile growing even larger.

“Thorn Byrd, very pleased to meet you,” Thorn said. “The reason I’m here today is I was hoping to speak to Yuri. Is he home, by chance?”

The woman bobbed her head, the movement so oversized Thorn could see the top of her scalp. “He is indeed. He’s down by the pond feeding the ducks.” She patted at Thorn’s arm and said, “A habit he picked up in D.C. and never quite broke himself of. Is he expecting you?”

“No ma’am, I’m afraid he isn’t. I know it’s very rude of me to show up like this, but I was hoping for just maybe a half hour of his time.”

“He should be back up to the house in a little while. I suppose you could go down to the water and talk to him now if you’d like.”

“That’d be excellent,” Thorn said, a touch of relief finding him. The conversation he was about to have could be awkward at best, confrontational at worst, and being able to have it in private made things much easier.

At once he was shown to the back door and pointed toward a pond a short distance away. Thorn thanked Sonia for her kindness and walked along a narrow footpath, careful to remain visible the entire time.

As he drew closer he could see a small, elderly man tossing handfuls of pellets across the water, a gaggle of ducks scurrying after them. Thorn waited until he was just forty yards away before throwing a hand in the air and saying, “Hello, there!”

The man looked up from the ducks, startled, before chuckling. “Why hello there to you too. I’m sorry, I didn’t see you.”

“Nothing to apologize for, sir,” Thorn said, drawing close. “I’m the one that showed up here this morning uninvited and unannounced. You had no reason to be looking for anybody.”

He walked up and extended his hand. “My name is Thorn Byrd.”

Chekov discarded the remaining pellets from his hand, rubbed it along the thigh of his pants, and returned the shake. “Yuri Chekov, glad to meet you.”

His accent was every bit as thick as his wife’s, the same good nature on display as well.

“And you as well Mr. Chekov.”

“Please, call me Yuri.”

“Very well, Yuri,” Thorn said and paused for a moment. “Now, I know how this is probably going to sound, but I was hoping I could ask you a few questions.”

Chekov’s eyes widened a bit, deep wrinkles forming along his forehead. “I’m sorry you came all this way, but everything I did for the consulate has since been declassified. You could have looked it up from your computer at home.”

Thorn smiled lightly, shaking his head. “No sir, that’s not what I came out here to talk to you about. I was wondering, do you happen to own a helicopter?”

Laughter escaped from Chekov’s lips and he waved his hand toward his home. “I know we are not a poor family, but I assure you I have nothing as large or expensive as a helicopter.”

“And this home,” Thorn asked, “is it the only one you own?”

The smile faded a bit from Chekov’s face. “It is. What is this about? Helicopters and homes and such?”

It was the moment Thorn had been concerned with since departing hours before, knowing the next few minutes could determine how things played out in the coming days or if he was back to square one. Exhaling, he said, “I work for a company – not government affiliated – that is conducting an investigation. Last night we took an image of a man climbing into a helicopter outside a private home in Massachusetts who bore a striking resemblance to you.”

All friendliness bled away from Chekov as he turned his back to Thorn and began digging through a bag of duck feed. “I’m quite certain I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Thorn waited a few moments to see if Chekov would say anything else, but the seasoned diplomat held his tongue.

“Yuri, why do I have the impression that while you may not be involved, you’re not surprised to see me here today?”

Without looking up, Chekov tossed a handful of pellets into the water. Thorn could see the color had drained from his face.

“I’m very sorry you feel that way.”

Thorn paused a bit longer before starting to back away. “My apologies for disturbing you.”

Chekov nodded in his direction, but stayed silent as Thorn withdrew.

Allowing himself to put some distance between them, Thorn paused and turned, backing away slowly. “Mr. Chekov, do the cities of Boston, Liverpool, Genoa, Hamburg, Vladivostok, and Nagasaki hold any special significance to you?”

Stopping mid-toss, Chekov turned his head to Thorn. He licked his lips several times, his body rooted in place. “What?”

Fishing the pictures from his pocket, Thorn stepped back over the ground he’d just traveled, dropping them down atop the feed bag. “Somebody in Massachusetts with a strong likeness to you is targeting those cities. That someone did this to my friend and I can only assume he plans to do even worse to the citizens of those towns.”

A shadow of melancholy crossed Chekov’s face as he stared at Thorn before sliding his gaze down to the pictures. All pretense of the ducks faded away as he reached down and took up the photos, looking at each one in turn.

By the time he was done and raised his gaze to Thorn, a bit of moisture had crept into the corners of his eyes.

“He’s doing it. He’s really going to do it.”

A ripple passed through Thorn as he ventured a few steps closer. “Who’s going to do what?”

Dropping the pictures back down on the sack, Chekov motioned to a split top wooden bench nearby. He remained silent until he was seated, Thorn drifting over and posting up on the opposite end of it.

For several minutes Chekov simply sat and stared out over the water, his mouth opening and closing in a few false starts, before he began.

“For the longest time we thought he was dead.”

Several questions came to Thorn’s mind, but he pushed each one away, content to let Chekov tell his story.

“It was the spring of 1942. My father was a Russian diplomat stationed in Germany at a time when it was foolish to think Germany would be diplomatic about anything.

“One afternoon our family was picnicking in a park when my brother Anton rose and said he had to use the restroom. It was the last time my parents would ever see him, the last time I would see him for a very long time.”

Again, Thorn waited in silence.

“Fast forward thirty-five years,” Chekov continued. “I was a brand new diplomat to the Russian consulate in America. One day, an appointment is set for me to have a private meeting with a man named Bern Gold. I was told he could be a large political contributor so I took the meeting.”

He paused just a moment, glancing to Thorn before again shifting his attention forward. “It took only seconds for me to realize I was staring at my brother Anton. Of course, I was overjoyed to see him, greeted him as such, wept tears of happiness at our good fortune.”

Again he paused, the old man seeming to draw further inward with every word he said. “That afternoon as we sat and talked it became very apparent that the man in front of me was no longer my brother. Gone was the young, happy, strapping boy of our youth and in his place was a bitter, angry, crippled man in a wheelchair.”

“Bitter and angry about what?” Thorn asked, keeping his voice to a whisper.

Chekov sighed. “That day in the park, my brother was abducted by Hitler’s SS. It did not matter that he was Russian or the son of a diplomat, to the local soldiers he was nothing more than a non-conforming youth. Like all the others, he was packed on to a truck and sent to a concentration camp. Kaiserwald.

“All told, he spent two and a half years there. It was one of the smaller camps in the war and located far to the east in Latvia, so they were one of the last to be evacuated.”

Pieces began to shift together, working their way into what Thorn already knew. Gaps still remained, but he couldn’t dispel the feeling that he was much closer to answers than he had been an hour before.

“That list of countries certainly fits with the participants of the Second World War, but it represents both sides. What could he have to gain by targeting all of them?”

Chekov rubbed his hands along his thighs and sighed again. “Like I said, the man that sat before me was bitter, filled with rage. He was angry at the Axis for what it did to him and he was angry at the Allies for not stopping it, for waiting to the very end to help them.”

Thorn nodded at the explanation, the data fitting, in a twisted sort of way. “What’s he planning to do?”

“Bear in mind this was all a long time ago, but he called it Liberation Day.”

Thorn let the words hang for several seconds, knowing Chekov would explain in his own time. Almost a full minute passed before he began again.

“Several of the men from Kaiserwald banded together to plot revenge on everyone they felt had wronged them. They took up posts around the world with the intention of getting back at every last person they held responsible.”

It was not the first time Thorn had seen what misplaced anger could do, his entire time in active duty spent battling just that.

“Why Liberation Day?” Thorn asked.

“He said waiting for their day of liberation was the only thing that kept them going while they were inside, and that planning Liberation Day kept them all going now on the outside.”

Thorn processed the information, his mind trying to grasp the enormity of what he was being told. “Get back at them how?”

“I don’t know,” Chekov whispered, turning to face Thorn while shaking his head. “I really don’t.”

Thorn met the gaze, forcing his outward appearance to appear neutral. “So your brother just walked in one day, thirty-five years after last seeing you, and told you all this?”

“He didn’t so much tell me as he tried to sell me on it. At that time, my family still had considerable stock in the Russian shipping industry.”

A low whistle slid from Thorn’s lips. “He wanted to bring you in.”

Chekov nodded his head. “I told him he was crazy and sold every last holding I had in Russia. As I sit here now, I have never been back.”

Thorn cast a glance over at Chekov to see two fat tears slide silently down his cheeks.

“And as bad as this sounds, I’ve spent every day since praying that my brother and his plan were both dead,” Chekov whispered.

Chapter Fifty-Six

 

 

The moment the plane touched down at Hanson Air Force Base, Thorn’s cell phone began vibrating against his leg. The number was one he didn’t recognize, ignoring it as he thanked Thompson for his help.

It rang again.

Thorn bypassed it a second time and drove from the base, thanking the guards at the exit station and easing back into midday traffic.

The third time it rang, Thorn fished it out and answered.

“Where the hell have you been?” barked Billy Turner.

“Upstate New York,” Thorn said. “I was on a plane with my phone turned off. What’s going on?”

“How fast can you get over here?”

“Twenty minutes?” Thorn said, computing the route in his head, looking out at the traffic around him.

“We’ll be waiting,” Turner said and hung up. Thorn stared at the phone for a moment in confusion before dropping it on the dash.

The drive took only seventeen minutes, the lunch traffic a bit lighter than Thorn expected. He pulled up to the main gate outside of Turner’s and was motioned through by Melvin without so much as a second glance, a smirk crossing his face as he noticed the splint still in place.

Thorn felt his insides tighten as Turner and Cardoza were waiting for him by the garage, both still wearing the same clothes as the night before. Behind them the garage door was shut tight.

Thorn parked the Explorer and climbed out.

“I’m guessing it was important?” Turner said by way of an opening.

“Extremely,” Thorn said. “This thing is a lot bigger than just some guys moving in on your docks.”

Turner shot a look to Cardoza, both looking grim.

“That’s why we called you,” Cardoza said.

The feelings of anticipation and dread climbed a bit higher in Thorn as he glanced between them. “What have I missed?”

“You have a weak stomach?” Turner asked.

Thorn had seen things that no person should ever have to, the kind of things that one wouldn’t think humans capable of doing to one another. “Not at all.”

“Come with us,” Cardoza said, leading the crew inside.

A putrid smell was the first thing to hit Thorn, a sheen of moisture coming to his eyes. For a moment, he paused just inside the door to let his gaze adjust before stepping forward and taking stock of the situation.

Lined before him were six men, all seated in a row, each tied down to a steel chair. All were in various states of disarray, physical violence worn plainly on their features. Of the half dozen two were unconscious, the others avoiding eye contact.

“You guys have been busy,” Thorn said, scanning the group before looking to Turner and Cardoza. “Who are they?”

“Four boats tried to get away last night,” Turner said. “Fifteen men in all. We gleaned through them and took care of the ones that didn’t know anything. No need to bother sweating the minions.

“These guys were a little higher on the food chain.”

Again Thorn looked at each of the men in turn. “They look like they wish they were dead right now.”

“Yeah, and how’s your friend?” Cardoza asked.

Knowing the implication that was being made, Thorn turned his attention back to Turner and Cardoza. “Commenting, not condemning.”

Both men nodded slightly, openly surveying him, trying to decide some unspoken question between them. Sliding the photos from his pocket Thorn stepped forward, holding them at arm’s length.

“Any bastards that would do this to a woman deserves whatever he gets.”

Once more the two exchanged a glance, both nodding.

“Good man,” Cardoza said.

“Please don’t take this the wrong way,” Thorn said, “but I was just handed a ton of new information.”

He let the statement end there, hoping it would be picked up that he had precious little time and needed to be back on the road soon.

“That’s why we called,” Turner said, looping out around the line of prisoners and walking along behind them. “When we first got them back here, they all tried the tough guy routine.

“We beat them with fists. Not a word. Whips. Nothing. Once

my friend over there went to work though, they couldn’t talk fast enough.”

As he talked, a thick, bullish man with a bald head and red beard stepped from the shadows into the open. Around his neck he wore a welder’s apron, the front speckled with blood. In either hand he carried a blowtorch and pliers, both also stained red.

Moving slowly behind them Turner extended a finger, pointing out various body parts among the captives. “What you smell is charred flesh and what you see are fingers, ears, and noses removed with pliers.”

Thorn gave no outward reaction as he looked at the group, having seen much worse in his day.

Turner continued his march along the line, stopping halfway down to run a knuckle along the back of one man’s skull. At the touch of his hand the man cowered in his seat, squirming as much as his bindings would allow.

Clearly whatever had happened in the previous hours had left a mark.

“What have you found out?” Thorn asked.

“Bits and pieces at best,” Cardoza said. “None of them know too much, just enough to paint a jumbled picture for us.”

Turner started on the far end, returning the same way he’d just come. “This guy here said that yesterday teams were dispatched all over the world to pick up shipments.”

He moved forward to the second man in order. “This one said that the guy he works for found some plant in South America called Brugmansia and was trying to weaponize it.”

The heels of his shoes clicked against the floor as he continued onward. “This third guy took it a little further and said it wasn’t that bad as a plant, but their boss figured out a way to vaporize it so it was lethal.”

Turner walked up behind one of the unconscious men and smacked the back of his head. “This one here just kept running his mouth, telling them to be quiet, and that some guy named Ling would kill them if he knew they were talking.”

“So you knocked him cold to shut him up?” Thorn asked.

“No,” Cardoza said, shaking his head. “He’s dead.”

Turner moved on down the row and tapped another guy on the shoulder. “This one claims to know nothing for certain, but that he heard the teams weren’t just going to pick up a delivery. Seems they had some dispatching to do as well.”

Thorn nodded his understanding, motioning toward the man on the end, his chin resting against his chest. “And the last guy?”

A thin smile crossed Turner’s face as he swatted the crown of the final man’s head. “This guy just cried like a bitch, so we knocked him out to shut him up.”

Cardoza and the large man both chuckled. Thorn couldn’t help but crack a smile as well. “Thank you for the information. I appreciate it.”

“You brought us in on what was happening, we felt the need to return the favor,” Turner said.

“Which is why I should tell you, from what I just learned, your docks are going to be a part of this thing,” Thorn said.

Turner nodded. “I figured as much.”

“And since the teams have already been dispatched, I have to believe it’s happening soon. I’m thinking tomorrow.”

“Why tomorrow?” Cardoza asked.

“They sent the teams out yesterday, anticipating going live tonight. Our invasion last night took out their control center, set them back a day.”

“What do you need from us?” Turner asked.

“I need to figure out how the weaponized plants are being shipped. If we can determine how they enter the Boston docks, we can alert the other cities ahead of time.”

“Meet me at the docks in the morning, I’ll show you everything I’ve got,” Turner said.

The last thing Thorn heard as he headed back toward the Explorer was the sound of a blowtorch kicking back to life.

Chapter Fifty-Seven

 

 

It was the second last-minute flight Thorn had been on in less than twelve hours. It too was a small private craft, arranged from an airfield outside of Boston near his condo. Ingram was waiting for him on the opposite end as he climbed off the plane and jogged straight to the car.

No briefcase. No luggage.

He wasn’t staying long.

Thorn hoisted himself into Ingram’s SUV and they made their way to company headquarters. They’d spent the afternoon scouring through options and despite their best efforts, came up with nothing short of going to the board and asking for help.

The situation before them was just too sprawling, their own resources simply too meager.

“How receptive were they to the meeting?” Thorn asked as they pulled up in front of the building. It was the first time Thorn had ever seen the place, or even given much thought to the look of his employer, though it fit with what we would have surmised. Multi-storied and done in entirely in black marble with tinted windows, the place held an imposing vibe that was unmistakable. Despite it being after eight o’clock in the evening, most of the lot was still filled with cars, many lights on in windows.

“Mixed reactions,” Ingram said. “Nobody’s ever happy about being told they’re not going to make it home for dinner.”

“Was Birkwood an ass?” Thorn asked.

“Birkwood’s always an ass,” Ingram said as they climbed out and walked inside.

A receptionist in a crisp business suit greeted them both by name at the door and showed them to the conference room. There was no other business on the docket, the gathering an emergency meeting Ingram had arranged hours before. All small talk died away upon their arrival, every gaze fixed on them as they moved into position.

Much like the previous time Ingram had appeared before them, the board was seated at a long table perpendicular to the main entrance. In front of them was a much smaller table with two chairs, a clear power dynamic at play.

“Gentlemen, please be seated,” Bryce Stepoli opened, extending a hand.

Both did as they were asked.

“You two requested this meeting, so I shall let you have the floor. Mr. Ingram, if you’d please.”

Ingram leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “I haven’t been here long enough to know proper protocol on this sort of thing, so I apologize in advance if we’ve stepped out of line or breached etiquette in coming here tonight. Given what we were facing, Mr. Byrd and I didn’t see any other option.”

“And what is it you’re facing?” John Lewis asked.

It was clear from the looks of them and the direct questions they were posing that they weren’t quite overtly hostile at the meeting, but were conducting things in a straightforward manner. There was no pretense of the gathering being for frivolous matters, not even a hint that there was a social component to the evening.

Ingram exhaled and glanced to Thorn. “It turns out the assignment we were given is much, much larger than some trouble at the Boston docks.”

As expected, the remark brought a reaction from Birkwood. He leaned back in his seat, his customary smirk in place, and said, “A week into his first assignment and already he’s here begging for help?”

The familiar pangs of animosity Thorn already felt for the man rose inside, though he remained silent.

For his part, Ingram ignored the comment. “The man who’s been tormenting the Boston docks has been doing so in an effort to gain control of them. He hopes to use that control as a launching point for an all-out assault on the United States.”

“Many of the projects we take on here have national security implications,” Birkwood said. “What’s the matter? Kid’s not good enough to take care of this one?”

Thorn leaned forward beside Ingram and said, “This one? Yes. Good enough to be in seven cities on three continents at the same time? I dare say not even someone with an ego the size of yours is that good.”

The words were gone before Thorn even realized it, vocalizing his inner monologue. Beside him, he could hear Ingram draw in a short breath, his body going stiff.

The air sucked out of the room as a few of the board members glanced down toward Birkwood. His face grew red and he started to respond, but Stepoli cut him off.

“Seven cities on three continents?”

Ingram deferred to Thorn, who ticked off the cities for the board in succession. He then explained how each of them bore a prominent role in the Second World War and how Yuri Chekov had tied them all together for him. When he finished, many of the board members eyebrows were raised and they were exchanging glances with one another.

Several moments of silence passed, many of the men fidgeting or scribbling notes. Sideways glances were cast, nobody sure of the next move.

“I guess we did hand you a big one for your first time out, didn’t we?” Stepoli finally offered.

Thorn raised one shoulder in a shrug, the rest of him remaining motionless. “No way of knowing. I just found out this morning.”

“What are your plans for the docks?” Stepoli asked.

“Have you ever heard of a substance called Brugmansia?” Thorn said, a bit of his earlier ire fading away, focusing in on Stepoli.

“Let’s pretend I haven’t.”

“It’s a plant found in the South American mountains. If ingested, it can produce serious side effects. If breathed, it is fatal. Best we can tell, it has been weaponized and will soon be shipped to every major city in the country.”

More notes were taken as Lewis looked up at him. “How reliable is your information on this?”

“Last night we seized several men affiliated with the undertaking. None of them were aware of the entire scope of the project, but taken together it was enough for us to request this meeting.”

There were large swaths of the story Thorn was leaving out, from the smoldering crater along the Massachusetts coast to the man with his blowtorch in a garage at Turner’s. On the plane ride down he had decided to strip away every detail that wasn’t absolutely necessary, stressing the importance that he was acting largely alone, that assistance was needed.

“When is this attack expected to be launched?” Stepoli asked.

“Tomorrow,” Thorn said. “Teams have already been spotted on site in each of the target cities.”

For a few moments, nobody in the room said a thing. Thorn and Ingram both sat and stared at the board as they jotted final notes, casting looks from one to another.

Once content they had everything documented, Stepoli leaned forward in his chair, the item squeaking a tiny bit beneath his weight.

“Normally an undertaking like this would have to be fully vetted and voted upon, but given the circumstances I don’t think that is possible or even necessary.”

He looked from one end of the table to the other, met by several nodding heads and the steadfast glare of Birkwood.

“You’ll be taking Boston?” Stepoli asked.

“Yes, sir,” Thorn said.

“We’ll see to the rest.”

Chapter Fifty-Eight

 

 

Bern Gold sat at the very same table that just days before he had shared with the other members of Liberation Day.

Today, he was joined only with Jasper and Ling.

Overnight, a work station was assembled to match the one from his vacated home, the only difference being the enormous oak table that dominated the room instead of his battered old desk.

Despite the lack of familiarity, he felt the symbolism of the table seemed fitting for the occasion.

Gold waited in silence as one by one the various other members called in to the meeting, nodding their greetings as they waited. Only once all were present, their faces filling the oversized screen on the wall, did things begin.

“First, allow me to say congratulations,” Gold said, striking the perfect solemn pitch as he stared out from his wheelchair. “For years now, we have toiled away with the intention of one day striking back at those that persecuted us. At times things seemed uncertain, might I even say doubtful, but through it all you were dependable and faithful.

“For that I am thankful.”

He paused for a moment as many of them smiled or nodded, their responses so predictable it was almost Pavlovian.

“Gentlemen, as of right now there is no more waiting for a date somewhere in the future. Starting today, we show the world that what was done to us was not okay, that turning their heads while it was done to us was even worse!”

A few of the men clapped while others shouted muffled calls of support.

Gold waited for silence to fall again and said, “Mr. White, is Liverpool under your control and ready for delivery?”

“Yes sir,” White said, beaming.

Gold again flipped a red light to green as he had done in the prior meeting, the map on the opposite monitor switching on cue. “And Mr. Buford, is Marseilles ready for our arrival?”

“Is it indeed, sir,” Buford responded.

Another light went to green and Gold said, “And how are things in Genoa, Mr. Miller?”

“They will be even better once your shipment arrives,” Miller said, smiling.

“Excellent,” Gold replied, turning another port from red to green. “And in Russia, Mr. Watts?”

“Vladivostok is anxiously awaiting our arrival as we speak,” Watts said.

Without looking up Gold flipped another switch, reciting the next name in the order from memory. “And Nagasaki, Mr. Werner?”

“Ready and waiting,” Werner’s voice called out.

“And last, my dear old friend, Mr. Black. How is everything in the Fatherland?” Gold asked, looking up to see nearly the entire map lit in green, just a single red marker still present.

“Hamburg is just desperate for us to embark,” Black said. “And let me just say while I have the floor, it has been a pleasure working with all of you and my life’s honor to have been a part of this, Mr. Gold.”

A series of nods and murmurs went up across the board as Gold said, “The pleasure has been all mine. I could not have done it without you.”

Silence fell as the men shared a moment to reflect on what they had accomplished.

Counting the seconds in his head, Gold waited long enough to convey the proper amount of respect before reaching beneath the table before him and extracting a small stainless steel box with a large red button on it. Cut from the same material as the Vaporizers themselves, he tugged a silver antenna several feet out from one end and held it tenderly in his hands. “Do you gentlemen know what this is?”

There was a palpable anticipation from the group as they each appeared to edge forward toward the screen, nobody saying a word.

“This is an international detonator,” Gold said. “This is what we’ve been waiting to use all these long years.”

He turned the detonator toward the camera and wagged it at them, as if a child displaying a new toy. “Tomorrow at midnight, I shall activate exactly 10% of all Vaporizers. Once those have cleared out the port cities, teams will enter the docks and transport the remaining Vaporizers to another city.

“The following night at midnight, I shall press the button and detonate another 10% of the Vaporizers. This will continue each night until every major city in seven countries has felt our wrath.”

Gold could feel the corners of his mouth rising upward as he spoke, the cruel simplicity of his plan too much to hold back. “Just as we were forced to spend days and months in terror of what the morrow might bring, these countries shall too. By the time we are done, they will have paid for what they did to us.”

A round of applause broke out over the call. Gold started to halt it, but opted to let it go for several moments instead.

“This will be the last time we speak until the project is completed,” he announced, raising his voice to be heard over the rising cheers on the line. He considered offering another perfunctory thank you for years of dedicated service, thought ot reminding the men of the necessary precautions they must take to ensure their own safety, but decided against it, content to wrap things up with one simple declaration.

“Gentlemen, Liberation Day is here!”

The level of applause ratcheted upward, several of the men standing, only their midsections visible onscreen. Lowering the light around him, Gold watched for several moments with an amused expression on his face before disconnecting himself from the call.

The room fell quiet in the wake of the cheering, Gold turning and tossing the detonator to Ling. “Go ahead and throw this away.”

A faint smile grew on Ling’s face. “I thought this was an international detonator?”

Gold glared at Ling’s sarcasm. “You know I would never be that cavalier with my plans. I could have shown those men a candy bar and they would have believed it, that’s how excitable they are right now.”

Ling nodded, unable to disagree with the assessment. “Does that mean these men have outlived their usefulness?”

Gold paused for a moment, considering the prospect. “I believe it does. I was going to allow them to enjoy the first night’s success, but I don’t think I will. It is my night to enjoy.

“Mine and mine alone.”

Chapter Fifty-Nine

 

 

“How the hell do you find anything in this place?” Thorn asked, ripping open a file cabinet as a wave of dust flew up in his face.

“Pretty damn easy if you know what it is you’re looking for,” Kenny Schiff said.

Thorn looked at the older man with white hair and couldn’t help but smile at the pure and simple logic he proffered.

For hours on end he, Nio, and Schiff had been in the room digging through every invoice from the last six months. In most instances it would have been an easy task, nothing more than a few keystrokes and a simple computer search.

Here, the computer-based system had been tossed aside five years before when some bored college students hacked in and sent ships bouncing all over the globe for fun.

Once it was discovered what had happened, Billy Turner arranged for two things. First, he got rid of the computers and demanded that all transactions be printed and filed.

Second, Turner had sent parts of the hackers bouncing all over the globe.

For fun.

The new system was slow and painful, a point Schiff had made a dozen times over, but it always ensured prying eyes were kept far away. The tedium of the system had been on full display throughout the day, the process starting with a half dozen men combing through the files. As the hours passed the number had dwindled to just three, the combination of frustration and narrow working space becoming unbearable for all.

To remedy the situation, a scheme was devised where anything that looked even remotely promising, whether it was a shipping origin or an unusual name, was piled up on a table by the door. Shortly after noon the other men in the room were sent out to begin peeking in containers, following up on the leads.

From that moment on, Thorn was certain to always have a few new ones in place, no matter how mundane they might have appeared.

Hour after hour passed in the cramped confines of the file room, Nio growing increasingly vocal about getting home to Iggy. Coming along had not been his idea or Thorn’s, instead a not-so-subtle prod from Dr. Whittle.

Ignoring the incessant comments, Thorn kept his attention aimed downward, rifling through untold stacks of invoices. Unlike most common tasks, he was unable to detach his active mind, forcing himself to stay focused and alert long past the burning in his eyes and nose from assorted invoice dust.

Outside the sun began to dip low in the western sky and the lights of Boston danced off the water as they continued to pound ahead. Fifteen thousand documents were already accounted for, many more lying in wait as they worked, tension growing with each passing moment.

“So, how long you been doing this?” Nio asked, his voice the first break in the silence in more than an hour.

“Almost twelve hours now. You?” Schiff said.

Hearing the conversation behind him, Thorn raised his eyes toward the ceiling before cracking a smile.

“About the same,” Nio replied. “How long you been on the docks?”

“Started in ‘71, fresh out of high school,” Schiff said, no small amount of pride in his voice. “Guard, dock hand, on up into management. Turner moved me over here five years ago after we went back to paper. Said I was the most organized man he knew or something like that.

“Don’t care for the cold the way I once did, so moving in here was just fine by me, even if it is a little boring.”

The wry smile fell away from Thorn’s lips as his rifling through the file cabinet came to a stop. Pulling out the sheet before him, he scanned the length of it, his heart rate picking up just a bit. “I think I’ve got something here.”

“Put it on the pile,” Nio said.

“No, I mean I think I’ve got something here,” Thorn repeated.

The sound of shuffling paper fell away as Thorn became aware that both men were staring intently at his profile.

“We’re listening,” Schiff said.

“Invoice here for a container full of air fresheners from a company called Living Decorations, Inc.”

“So?” Nio asked.

Thorn looked up, seeing the confusion on both their faces. “Living Decorations. Port of origin is Emden, Germany.”

“LD. Liberation Day,” Nio said, piecing together what he was being told. “How many invoices from them?”

“Just the one.” Thorn said, turning the paper over once in his hand before tossing it atop the file cabinet. “That has to be it, right?”

“Doesn’t hurt to look,” Nio offered.

Glancing up at the clock on the wall, Thorn nodded in agreement. At a quarter past nine in the evening, they had been trapped inside the space for more than twelve hours. If nothing else, drawing in some fresh air and clearing his head before a long night would be a needed respite.

In the event this was the container they were looking for, he didn’t want to leave it sitting active any longer than necessary.

“Pier Five,” Thorn said, “container number KV-117.”

Saying the words out loud, something Chekov had told him clicked in Thorn’s mind, the name of the concentration camp his brother had been sent to at Kaiserwald.

“Come on,” Thorn said, leaving his cabinet standing open as he turned and strode from the room. He could hear Nio running to catch up behind him as they both moved for the Explorer parked outside.

The piers filed past in quick order as Thorn gunned it for the opposite end of the docks, sliding to a stop along Pier Five. Piling out they both took a side, checking each of the containers in turn for the number in question. As they worked, Nio carried the Glock he received the night before while Thorn opted for the big .44 and a folding knife tucked into his rear pocket.

Halfway down the dock Nio spotted the container in question, calling Thorn across to join him. Sitting at the bottom of a stack of three, they did a quick revolution of the area, finding it desolate.

“Thoughts?” Nio asked.

“Could be a remote detonator,” Thorn said, pulling the oversized gun from its holster and aiming it at the padlock hanging from the door before pulling the trigger. Bits of steel exploded into every direction, flecks of it catching the overhead light, as the lock disintegrated to the ground, the sound carrying out over the water.

“Anything?” Thorn asked, pressing his chin to his shoulder and looking back at Nio.

Behind him Nio had his back pressed against the container, the Glock held in both hands. “Nothing. Go ahead.”

The container was new and the lever easily slid up in a ninety-degree arc, offering only a small groan in protest. Thorn grasped one side of the door with his left hand and held the .44 in his right. In one fluid motion, he threw back the door of the container and stepped inside, his gun raised, his eyes doing their best to adjust to the dim light.

At first glance the container was lined with pallets, each of them loaded high with cardboard boxes emblazoned in Living Decoration logos. Sliding the folding knife from his pocket, Thorn stepped to the closest one and cut a vicious slice through the plastic encasing it.

Pulling free a plain cardboard box, Thorn set it on the ground and sliced away the top. Feeling a tiny prick of adrenaline enter his system, he peeled back the cardboard sheet to find a series of smaller boxes, each packed tight.

Printed on each one were pictures of air fresheners and the words “Cinnamon Stick Scent.”

Adrenaline gave way to irritation as Thorn lifted one of the boxes free, tearing it open with both hands. Inside was nothing more than an air freshener, the name Living Decoration emblazoned on the side.

“Son of a bitch,” Thorn muttered, staring down at the item a moment before hurling it against the side of the container. On contact it smashed into tiny plastic bits, the sound of the impact reverberating through the enclosed space.

“What?” Nio asked, his silhouette appearing in the doorway.

“It’s legit,” Thorn said, stepping outside and slamming the door shut. “Nothing but air fresheners.”

Side by side they started back up the pier, both shaking their heads, bitterness on their faces. They strode in silence, each lost in their own thoughts, until a sound drew their attention upward.

Standing at the end of the pier was Schiff, his hands extended overhead. Back and forth he waved them, yelling something that wasn’t quite discernible from where they stood.

“What?” Thorn called out, cupping his hands to either side of his mouth as he increased his pace to a jog.

Ahead in the distance he could see Schiff make a similar gesture with his hands, though the only sound to be heard was the single crack of a gunshot piercing the night air.

Chapter Sixty

 

 

Thorn knew the moment the sound found his ears what had happened. Untrained to such situations Nio pulled to a stop beside him, the slap of his shoes fading away as Thorn sprinted onward. Just as it had a few nights before, muscle memory took over, carrying him forward, his weapon poised in front of him.

Rising onto the balls of his feet, Thorn made his steps as light as possible as he ran forward, closing the gap between himself and Schiff’s body before pulling to a stop and ducking behind a tie-down pole.

Fifteen feet away, he could Schiff lying in a twisted mass, blood spatter extended from his body in a misshapen pattern. A pool of blood leaked from the open wound on his head, the overhead light shining off the surface of it.

“Dammit,” Thorn muttered, dropping flat to his stomach and inching forward, peering down the length of the pier.

Approaching through the darkness were two men in dark suits, their appearance showing a striking resemblance to the men at Gold’s the night before. Both carried handguns as they approached, their hands lowered to their sides, swinging freely.

Raising himself to his knees, Thorn looked back at Nio and motioned for him to stop, waving him off to the side for cover. He paused a moment until his directive was followed before crawling forward, finding a thin gap between two containers. Once there, he rose to a standing position, his body pressed against the cool metal.

The Magnum in his hand still held a full clip, more than enough to cut down the two men. His only hope was there weren’t more nearby, his weapon made more for stopping power than precision.

With a clear view of Schiff’s body, Thorn lowered himself to a knee and extended the gun, cupping his left hand beneath it for support. Drawing in slow, even breaths, he remained motionless, his entire focus on waiting for the two intruders to come into view.

To his surprise, it wasn’t the sight of them that first assaulted his senses, but rather a volley of shots, all loud and heavy, almost a dozen in total.

A moment later the sound of boots hitting concrete could be heard, a pair of men far different from the ones he was expecting appearing from the opposite direction.

One of them Thorn recognized on sight, rising to full height.

“Kelley!” Thorn called, stepping away from the container. In front of him both men turned, raising their weapons, their bodies dropped into defensive postures.

“Robert Myers!” Thorn said, extending the barrel of his weapon toward the sky and taking another step forward.

Framed in the overhead light, Thorn watched as Kelley’s stance relaxed, the tension passing from his body as he lowered his weapon. “Jesus, man, I almost took your head off.”

He said something indecipherable to his new partner before turning back to Thorn. “How many more are there?”

“I don’t know. I was down the dock checking a container when it happened.”

Thorn walked forward and joined the men, both stopping a few feet from Schiff’s body. The new partner was big and rugged with red hair, wearing a flannel shirt and carrying a matching .44.

Thorn nodded to him as he approached, turning over his shoulder and calling, “Nio!”

A moment later Nio appeared, the Glock swinging by his side.

As a group, the men waited for him to reach them before turning their collective attention down to Schiff.

“What the hell happened?” Kelley asked, his voice low.

“We were checking one of the containers when he came out to flag us down,” Thorn said, noticing a piece of paper still clutched in the old man’s hand, large splotches of blood staining it. ”He didn’t even see it coming.”

“Aw hell,” the other man muttered, shaking his head. “If I’d known they killed Kenny, I would have done a lot worse than shoot them.”

“Yeah,” Thorn agreed. For a moment his mind went back to the scene at Turner’s the day before, imagining the large man with the blowtorch having his way with these two hired thugs.

If not for the enormity of the moment, the thought may have evoked a smile.

Stepping forward, Thorn slid the piece of paper away from Schiff’s clutches, smoothing out the wrinkled page. Crimson streaks stained the bottom half of it, the top just clear enough to make out the reason for Schiff’s coming to find them.

“Listen, I don’t mean to sound like a prick-“

“Go,” Kelley said, his gaze never lifting from Schiff. “We know why you’re here and what’s going on.”

“Thank you,” Thorn said, nodding. “You’ve got Kenny?”

“We do,” Kelley said.

“And those two?”

“Oh yeah,” his partner said.

Chapter Sixty-One

 

 

Every bulb along the length of Pier Two was busted, the entire area cloaked in darkness. The only light at all was the ambient glow of the city as it refracted off the ocean. Leaving Nio behind, Thorn moved forward, his knees bent into a crouch, crossing one foot in front of the other. Keeping his back just inches from the containers lining the pier, he maintained a steady pace, his eyes slowly adjusting to the darkness around him.

The purchase order Schiff had found originated in Murmansk, Russia, the number on the outside KW-834. In his haste earlier Thorn had forgotten to account for Chekov’s accent, the name Kaiserwald sounding like Kaiservald. Cursing himself for the gaffe he continued going onward, a low persistent rumble reaching his ears.

Pausing, he pressed himself back against the closest container and listened, the sound continuing, low and even.

Beginning anew, Thorn rose to full height and ran forward, letting the sound serve as his guide. Without glancing at cargo numbers he sprinted onward, the noise growing closer, never wavering.

As he drew closer Thorn slowed his pace, moving silently along the concrete. Ahead he could pick out the muffled noises of feet scraping against pavement, of crates being unloaded.

Inching forward, he nudged his head around the edge of the closest container. There in the darkness, oblivious to anyone around them, were two men in gas masks unloading cardboard boxes. Beyond them in the harbor sat a boat with two men arranging the boxes passed to them.

Tucking himself back behind the container, Thorn rotated his grip to the barrel of the .44, waiting as the sound of footsteps grew closer.

Once they seemed to be only inches away, he swung out from his hiding place, swinging the butt of the gun down in a half arc.

The man stood paralyzed at the sight of Thorn lurching toward him, unable to even raise his hands as the gun crashed into his cheekbone. It smashed into the thick rubber of the gas mask, embedding it in the man’s face as he fell limp to the ground.

From the water, one of the men onboard the boat saw the burst of movement, his arms rising and waving in panic above his head. “Hey!”

Flipping the gun in his hand, Thorn stepped forward over the body of his first victim, firing two rounds into the front windshield of the boat. The loud boom of the gun echoed across the water as the bullets smashed into the Plexiglas, shards of it exploding across the interior of the boat.

At the sound of gunfire, a second man rushed out from inside the container and hurling the box he was carrying at Thorn. The full weight of it slammed into his shoulder, twisting his upper body to the side as dozens of small silver packages spilled across the concrete with a clatter.

Following the path of the box, the man stepped forward and threw a quick jab at Thorn, followed by a looping hook. Thorn ducked the jab and grabbed the man’s arm as he threw the hook, raising his knee into his solar plexus. The man made a gasping sound as the wind rushed from his lungs, remaining bent at the waist as Thorn whipped the barrel of the Magnum across the back of his skull.

The moment the metal connected with the exposed backside of the man’s head he wilted to the ground, landing atop the lower half of his cohort.

From the water, the boat engine sprang to life. Without rising into view, the driver reached up and dropped the throttle, steering them away, driving blind into the night.

For a moment Thorn stood poised with his gun extended, ready to pump the rest of his clip into the retreating boat. Just as fast he let the notion fade, watching as twin trails of churned water appeared, the boat speeding away into the darkness.

“Dammit,” Thorn muttered, tucking the gun into the back of his pants. Starting with the man piled on top, he stripped away the gas mask and pulled a handgun from his waistband, tossing it into the harbor. Pushing his limp body to the side, he did the same with his partner, removing the same items before dumping him in a heap alongside his mate.

Once his opposition was neutralized, Thorn shifted his attention to the container. Shoving the doors open wide, he stepped inside to find the entire space stuffed full with pallets, each one filled with identical cardboard boxes.

Uniform in size and shape, not a single insignia or notation of any kind could be seen from where he stood.

Glancing down to the box that had been thrown at him, Thorn picked up one of the small silver packages, turning the stainless steel box over in his hands. Rectangular in shape, a nozzle on one end and a small red blinking light on the other served as the only defining features.

“You must be a Vaporizer,” Thorn whispered, turning it over once more.

A wave of anger rose deep within as he stared at the tiny silver implement. For a moment, he thought of Schiff lying dead nearby, of Iggy stretched across his bed at home.

He thought of everything Yuri Chekov had told him.

Years before Thorn had seen atrocities committed by rulers to their own people. As tragic, as horrendous, as they were, not once did the oppressed feel the need to take that fight global, to destroy millions of people decades after the fact.

Wheeling on the ball of his foot, he flung the object far into the harbor, long beyond the distance where he could have heard the sound of it splashing under. Feeling the animosity within only grow, he grabbed up two more strays from the ground and flicked them behind him, taking up the box and hurling it as well.

Using the side of his foot he slid the remaining few stragglers over the edge, stepping forward and watching as the entire group disappeared beneath the darkened surface of the water. Once they were gone from sight he drew his cell phone from his pocket, dialing from memory.

A moment later it was answered, Ingram on the other end.

“You find it?”

“All present and accounted for,” Thorn said, “minus a box that is now sitting at the bottom of the harbor.”

“Good work,” Ingram replied, his voice belying the slightest hint of relief.

“Not just yet,” Thorn replied. “We’ve got an entire container full of aerosol weapons that can be activated from anywhere.”

“Right,” Ingram said, the same terse voice from before reappearing.

“And they know we have them,” Thorn said, not bothering to fill in the remainder of the details.

“On it.”

“Pier Two, KW-832,” Thorn said. “Fast.”

He disconnected the call, turning to close the container up tight. Once it was shut and locked, he took out his cell phone a second time, scrolling through his recent incoming calls before finding what he was looking for.

This time the line rang only once before being snapped up, Turner’s voice on the other end of the line. ”You find them?”

“Yeah,” Thorn said, turning and resting his back against the container door, staring down at the two men lying motionless before him.

“I hear they got Kenny Schiff,” Turner said, a tiny hint of somber present.

“They did,” Thorn said, lowering his voice to match the tone. He knew there were many more things he could say, condolences he could offer, but opted against it.

Right now his part in the evening was not yet over, his focus still required.

“Listen, I hate to ask this, but is there any chance your friend with the blowtorch is up for a field trip?”

A moment of silence passed, Thorn almost able to envision the look of confusion on Turner’s face. “What?”

“I got two here alive and I need an address. Whoever’s in charge is close, I just don’t know where.”

“You’ve got two there with you now?” Turner asked, his voice rising several decibels.

“Yep.”

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”

Chapter Sixty-Two

 

 

Tense silence hung in the air as Gold stared at the bank of monitors. Behind him, Jasper and Ling stood a few feet apart, each of them studying the images in silence. Off to one side was a young man with thick black hair, on standby to bring champagne at a moment’s notice. He stood fidgeting with his hands behind his back, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and avoiding eye contact.

On the monitors were news feeds from every major provider in the country. CNN. Fox News. ABC. Gold had even turned one of the monitors to ESPN.

If it could cover 9/11 and the capture of Bin Laden, surely it would cover him as well.

Time ticked by, the room silent as they waited for the call to say things were in place, Liberation Day could commence.

“Are you sure they have the right number for this residence?” the young man asked, unable to bear the tension any longer.

Gold did not bother to respond as his eyes slid shut. Instead he coughed once, a tiny throat clearing. At the signal, Ling sidestepped and shot his heel hard into the man’s throat. A small stream of blood seeped over his lips as he fell to his knees and then his chest without a sound.

Just as fast Ling resumed his post, neither Jasper nor Gold acting like they’d even seen what happened.

Two more minutes of staring at the televisions ensued, all three men watching images from around the world, none of which had the slightest thing to do with them. In frustration Gold cut away the feeds, the screens going black. Snatching up his phone, he dialed the number, squeezing the head of his cane with the opposite hand so tight his knuckles showed white beneath the skin.

The phone rang seven times before it was picked up, the din of a boat engine mixed with the low sounds of the ocean filtering over the line.

“What happened?” Gold snapped, not waiting for any acknowledgement on the other side of the line. When more silence ensued he leaned forward in his seat, bellowing the question again, spittle flying from his mouth and down his chin.

A moment passed before anybody spoke.

“Bad news, boss,” a man said. “We lost two men.”

“You think I give a damn about two men?! What happened to my weapons?!”

“They were waiting for us,” the man said. “They got Sykes and Benson. We were lucky to escape.”

Gold’s face grew hot as he leaned toward the speaker phone. “I would not call that lucky at all. Getting shot would be preferable to what I’m going to do to you.”

The man said nothing as background noise again came in over the line.

Gold exhaled and leaned back in his chair. “Where are my Vaporizers now?”

This time any response was cut off by the line going dead, though if it just a lost signal or was disconnected Gold couldn’t be certain.

Not that it mattered one bit either way, the men just two more that would be eradicated as part of his plan.

“Idiots,” he muttered, gripping the cane and stamping the base of it hard against the floor. “Right now my Vaporizers are at the bottom of Boston Harbor. I guarantee it.”

Spinning in his chair, Gold turned to stare at Ling. “These are your best men? These idiots that can’t do a simple job and run at the first sign of gunfire?”

Remaining rooted in place, Ling’s eyes narrowed at the attack. “None of these are my men. My men were killed in China many years ago. These are your men.”

Malevolence burned on Gold’s face. “I hired you to train them into your men.”

“You hired me to watch your back,” Ling countered. “Many have died in the last week. You have not been touched.”

Gold leaned his head back and stared up at the ceiling. He was not a man used to employees talking back to him, or of his plans not going as directed. Things were beginning to tug at the seams. “You know who is responsible for this, don’t you?”

The brim of Ling’s fedora dropped so he could just see out beneath it. “Yes.”

“You’re right, I did hire you to watch my back. But right now, I want you to leave. I want you to go Boston and get rid of that son of a bitch. Go after his friends, his family, anybody he owes money to. Teach him what happens when he meddles in my affairs.”

“I will find him.”

For the first time all evening, Jasper spoke. “Actually, I don’t think you’ll have to.”

“Why not?” Gold asked, glancing in his direction.

Raising a floral clad arm, Jasper pointed to a monitor on the opposite wall. “He’s come to us.”

Rotating his chair around, Gold focused on what Jasper was pointing toward. “He’s come to us,” he echoed. “You know what this means, Ling.”

His words were met by silence.

Ling was already gone.

Chapter Sixty-Three

 

 

The front end of the Explorer crumpled inward on contact as it rammed into the gate. The front hood tented upward several inches, the headlights both blacking out. The impact rocked Thorn and Nio forward, the rear of the SUV fishtailing as they moved forward. On either side they could hear the angry scream of metal being sheered away as the gate fell open, the cobbled driveway extended like a gray ribbon through the lawn in front of them.

Steam rose from either side of the pinched hood, appearing in soft white billows before dissipating into the night. A low grinding noise sounded out from the engine, a small lurch occurring every few seconds as they moved forward. Beneath them the driveway sped by, moving in a straight line that wrapped them around to the right of the enormous house and on toward the back.

“What are we doing here, Thorn?” Nio called, his voice raised to a yell as he braced himself in the passenger seat.

Seated behind the wheel Thorn remained silent, assessing the grounds. Since leaving the docks, he had been operating at a breakneck pace, fueled only by the knowledge that he had precious little time before Gold initiated his global chemical strike.

Finding him and Ling both, ending their plans, had to happen tonight.

The front of the house vaguely resembled the mansion on the water, a wide front porch interspersed with columns. The odds of making it up the stairwell to the front door weren’t good, especially with the condition the Explorer was in.

Instead Thorn pressed down harder on the gas, swinging wide toward the back. Negotiating the corner of the house, he aimed for the back patio, looking up just in time to see twin muzzle flashes spark before them. A moment later a pair of bullets punctured the front windshield, the holes no more than four inches apart, passing right between them.

Nio dove behind the dash as a third shattered the windshield into a thousand tiny shards of glass, each one with jagged edges ripping at them as they swirled about the interior of the car.

Three more bullets slammed into the passenger side of the car, the rear tire rupturing as Thorn raised his forearm over his head, trying in vain to protect himself. The Explorer lurched hard as the rubber tire shredded away, sparks erupting from the wheel. Rising up behind the steering column, Thorn pressed his full weight down on the brakes, the entirety of the Explorer shaking, tossing them about the front cab.

“Hold on!” Thorn yelled, the SUV listing badly to the side. The steering wheel jerked in his hands as the front end pulled from the driveway, the tires catching the corner of the rock wall encasing the flower beds on either side of the drive. Just low enough to act as a ramp, it lifted them into the air, the automobile rotating as the passenger side rose perpendicular to the ground.

For a moment the SUV hung suspended before crashing down on its hood, ripping dirt and sod away in great clumps. Soil spilled through the open windshield as the Explorer slid to a stop, a mound of displaced turf bunched around it.

When they finally ceased moving the only sound was a low hissing from the radiator, the smell of fresh cut grass in the air.

“You all right?” Thorn asked, shaking his head and checking to make sure he was still intact.

The plan was terrible at the time of conception, a fact that seemed even more apparent now. Given his limited numbers and dwindling time frame though, there weren’t a lot of options. Culling together a force like the night before would take too long, especially given the technological reach Gold had proven himself to have.

Already they had burned time by waiting for Turner to show up and for an address to be extracted. Once the information was free, Thorn had no choice but to act on it, even though it meant being stuck with Nio for the duration.

Ramming the front gate was just one more in a series of unfortunate realities, Thorn being forced to react more so than plan ahead.

“Yeah,” Nio said, a low groan rolling out before and after the word as he worked to free himself from the tangle of the car.

Unfastening his seatbelt, Thorn twisted himself from beneath the steering wheel and out through the open windshield. Flecks of glass had chewed into his forearms and shoulders, blood and dirt streaking his body. Rising to full height, he extended a hand down to help Nio, stopping short at the sight of a single figure in black striding toward him.

As the man walked forward, he shrugged off his heavy black jacket, letting it drop to the ground. In short order, he also pulled the fedora from his head and tossed it to the side.

“Nio, do you see my gun anywhere?” Thorn asked, lowering his hands by his side as he watched the man approach.

From where he was lying, Nio shot a glance around him. “No, it must have flown out when we went airborne.”

Thorn nodded, turning toward the man and taking a few steps away from the wreckage. “Ling, I presume?”

A thin smile grew across the man’s face. “So you do know who I am. And you are?”

Already Thorn’s adrenaline was spiked from the crash, his heart rate now increasing to match. “Does it matter?”

“Not really. I just wanted to have a name to give my boss when I tell him you are dead.”

Thorn smirked. “I’m not an easy man to kill. You should know that by now.”

The thin smile disintegrated from the man’s face, his features growing hard. He remained stationary a moment before transitioning into a fighting stance, snapping a kick toward Thorn’s throat. Using his left forearm, Thorn deflected the blow and stepped out to the side. Ling pivoted hard on his left foot and swung his right hand in a hard chop toward Thorn’s head.

Thorn ducked as the chop glanced off and shot a jab to Ling’s ribs. The blow landed with solid impact and Thorn heard the air rush from Ling’s lips.

Ling stepped back for a moment as Thorn rose to full height, the two staring at each other before beginning to circle again.

In Thorn’s periphery, he could see Nio had managed to free himself from the car, the entire left side of his face covered in blood as he stood motionless, watching the fight.

Again Ling moved first, feigning a straight kick to elicit a reaction. The moment Thorn raised his left arm to block, Ling sent a snap kick into his ribs, the clear snap of a bone breaking sounding out.

Paint shot through Thorn, stars igniting before his eyes, as he used the force of the blow and pivoted on his right foot, firing a spinning blow at Ling’s head. A millisecond before contact, Ling slid beyond the range of the shot, stepping in behind it and firing a jab to Thorn’s mouth.

On contact, the wounds from their previous encounter reopened, the metallic taste of blood rolling across his tongue.

Seeing the blood, knowing his opponent was injured, Ling moved in for another shot to the base of Thorn’s skull. Dropping down beneath the attack, Thorn swung his leg in a fast arc, aiming for a leg sweep.

An instant too slow, Ling jumped the attempt and shot a snap kick into Thorn’s chest. The blow was enough to knock Thorn off balance, scrambling from his backside to his hands and knees as he hit the ground.

Less than a moment later another kick came in, connecting with Thorn’s cheek, sending him sprawling across the grass.

The lights returned before his vision as he lay face down on the ground, acutely aware of every last injury he had incurred in the previous days.

“So again I ask, what is your name?” Ling said, standing back a few feet and waiting for Thorn to rise so he could finish him off.

One inch at a time, Thorn willed himself to move, his hands running over the cool grass and sliding inward to push himself up.

Halfway to his torso, his right hand touched metal.

Forcing his eyes into focus, he looked over to see the big .44 lying not a foot from his head.

Sliding his right hand across the grass, he wrapped his fingers around the base of it, leaving it lying flat on the ground as he pulled it close. Keeping his body between it and Ling, he rose up onto his knees, turning to glare back at his opponent.

“And again I ask, does it matter?”

The smile returned to Ling’s face. “You don’t have to tell me. After I kill you, I’ll get it from your friend here before I kill him. Hell, I may even ask that little bitch in the bikini before I finish her too.”

At the mention of Iggy, a guttural cry rose from Nio, the words snapping him to action as he rushed forward. Stepping to the side, Ling curled his leg inward, lining up another thrust kick as a force jerked him backwards.

Nio pulled up at the sight of the spastic movement, the thundering register of the .44 rolling across the grounds.

Rising from his knees, Thorn walked forward, firing a second time as he took a step closer.

On impact Ling’s opposite shoulder jerked to the side, his body moving in contorted bursts, an oversized marionette dancing above the grass.

Balanced on uneven legs, Ling stared with hatred at Thorn. Blood coated his teeth and dripped down over his bottom lip. “You won’t do it. You’re not a killer.”

Thorn drew back the hammer of the gun. “Aren’t I?”

“No,” Ling said, staring out from beneath heavily lidded eyes. “You don’t think I see how you use the gun as a club and never fire it? Killing isn’t for people like you.”

“You’re right,” Thorn said, “but this isn’t for me. This is for Kenny Schiff and Cyrus Cooper. For the people in that container. For Jorge Garcia.”

Thorn didn’t give him a chance to respond. Instead he emptied the rest of his clip into Ling’s chest, the massive rounds finding center mass, ripping away chunks of flesh.

The combined force of them sent Ling sprawling backwards, his body landing in a crumpled mound, not to move again.

Chapter Sixty-Four

 

 

Thorn left Ling where he lay. Feeling the full effect of the last few days, he strode straight for the house, intent to finish things before the adrenaline within subsided, the sum total of his injuries caught up with him. Streaked with blood and soil he walked forward, carrying the empty .44 in his hand. As a gun it was now no longer useful, but as a bludgeon it still carried a great deal of value.

For several moments Nio stood and watched him walk away before snapping to life and jogging after him. He caught up just shy of the front steps and whispered, “Where the hell is everybody?”

“I don’t think there is anybody else,” Thorn said without glancing over. “I’m guessing they figured Ling was protection enough.”

Nio offered a half smile at the mention of Ling, following Thorn up the front steps.

“Ling was right, you know,” Nio said. “I didn’t think you’d shoot him. I took you for the fight-it-out-to-the-death sort.”

Thorn moved to the far side of the stairwell, pausing as he looked through the front windows lining the porch. Many of the lights were on inside the house, though nobody seemed to be moving about. “Just win. That’s all that matters.”

Moving back to the front door, Thorn gave a quick glance over the hinges for signs of traps before trying the handle.

To his surprise, it turned easily in his hand.

“They must not have planned on anybody making it this far,” Nio muttered.

“Or they figured if someone did, what good would a deadbolt do?” Thorn replied, raising the .44 and easing sideways through the door.

His feet sank down into a plush rug lying atop hardwood flooring, an elegant staircase rising upward. Over two dozen stairs in height, it went to the second floor before stretching wide to either side

“Where to?” Nio whispered.

Thorn surveyed the foyer. “The man’s in a wheelchair, I’m guessing he didn’t go up.”

The night before his office had been on the second floor, though that was at a primary residence that had been carefully cultivated to serve as a lair. If the guards Turner had interrogated earlier were to be believed, this home was a recent acquisition, free from the personal touches someone like Gold would require.

“Let’s start to the right,” Thorn said. “Closer to the garage for a quick escape.”

Leaving the foyer behind, they stepped into a wide hallway with dark wood floors and crown molded ceilings. High-backed chairs and expensive tables were positioned along either side, landscape paintings hanging from the walls.

Every few feet, the wall was punctuated by a heavy oak door, all of them standing open with light streaming out into the hallway. One at a time they made their way through them, Thorn entering with his empty weapon, Nio standing at the doorway to cover the rear.

This pattern continued through over a half dozen rooms before encountering two consecutive doors standing closed. Light threw itself out from beneath them both, though no sound could be heard from within.

Thorn stood back and examined them for a moment, his rear pressed against the opposite wall. “One room, two doors.”

“Yeah,” Nio said, his voice low as he ran his tongue over dry lips.

“Trade me guns,” Thorn said, extending the handle of his weapon by his side. Nio took it and thrust the Glock into his hand, Thorn never once looking over.

Out of pure habit, Thorn checked the slide and made sure the safety was off, his hands operating without visual assistance. Staring at the heavy wooden door, he didn’t trust that a kick would be enough to get him inside, most likely only leaving him with further injury.

The thought of lowering his shoulder and slamming his broken ribs into it didn’t seem appealing, though he had no further options.

Stepping forward into the middle of the hall, he bounced on the balls of his feet, ready to hurtle himself forward.

“It’s open. Come on in.”

The voice reverberated through the hallway, sounding mechanized and automated through the intercom system. Dropping flat onto his feet, Thorn cast his gaze up toward the ceiling. In the crown molding along the hallway, barely perceptible, were a series of tiny black circles.

“Fiber-optic cameras,” Thorn said. “He’s been watching us the whole time.”

Behind him he could hear Nio muttering as Thorn stepped forward and opened the door, the Glock extended in front of him. One inch at a time he moved in, clearing the space behind the door and making sure he wasn’t stepping into a trap before proceeding.

The room was dominated by a large wooden table, electronics of all assortments arranged atop it. On the far two walls were banks of monitors, one covered with newscasts, the other featuring camera feeds encompassing the grounds, all muted into silence.

In the center of the space sat a single man in a wheelchair bearing a strong resemblance to Yuri Chekov. Thick white hair covered his head and he was dressed in a blue suit with a gray and blue tie, a matching blanket covering the lower half of his body.

“So you’re the young man that’s been giving me fits?”

Thorn glanced around the room, the old man very much alone and unarmed. He lowered the Glock and said, “And you must be Gold.”

Surprise flickered behind Gold’s eyes, an indiscernible look crossing his face. “You have no idea what you’ve stumbled onto here.”

Nio entered the room and took up a post just inside the door, though Gold didn’t bother to acknowledge his presence.

Thorn moved to his left and glanced out the window before returning his gaze to Gold. “Kind of light on security tonight, aren’t you?”

“I had Ling,” Gold said matter-of-factly. “I never thought I’d need any more protection than that. Turns out I was wrong.”

”Have a good view?” Nio asked

Gold nodded, his attention still on Thorn. “I saw what happened. Have to admit, I didn’t think you had it in you.”

“Only for those of you that deserve to die,” Thorn said, putting his back to the wall and staring at Gold.

“I deserve to die?” Gold asked. “That’s mighty strong. You don’t even know me.”

Drawing in a deep breath through his nose, Thorn recalled everything he’d learned in the preceding days. “Bern Gold. Reclusive billionaire with property holdings in Boston, Cape Cod, and who knows how many other places around the world. Savvy, ruthless business man with a bottom line that would make most small countries salivate.”

“Very impressive,” Gold conceded. “Though, in fact, you know nothing at all.”

“Bern Gold,” Thorn repeated. “AKA Anton Chekov, son of Russian diplomat Dmitri Chekov, disappeared in Germany in 1942. Presumed dead by all, you were captured by the German SS and stashed away in Kaiserwald, ugly stepsister to the real concentration camps of the war.”

Any hint of mirth fled from Gold’s face as he threw back the blanket covering his lowering half. Beneath it, he had not bothered with the slacks to match his suit, a pair of gnarled and shriveled legs covered only by gym shorts visible. “Does this look like the work of an ugly stepsister?”

Thorn shook his head. “Looks like the kind of thing that would turn a man angry and bitter.”

Gold swallowed hard and raised his hand to his mouth. He removed a porcelain crown, leaving a broken and stained front tooth behind, a gap between it and its neighbor visible. “Every single day I look at this tooth and it reminds me of the moment my life changed forever. It reminds me of the death of the only girl I would ever love and of the monstrosities that were done to me.”

“The only monstrosity I see here is your plan to murder millions of innocent people because you’re still carrying a grudge.”

Anger twisted Gold’s face for a full moment before slowly fading away, a small smile replacing it. He reached onto the table behind him and grabbed a small silver box, placing it atop his lap. “Do you know what this is?”

“One of your homemade Vaporizers.”

The old man nodded. “And do you know what is behind me?”

“Should I?”

“You should. Boston was only to be the first step. In less than a minute, I am going to press a button that will ignite thousands of these all over the world.”

“And you think we’re just going to stand here and let that happen?” Thorn asked.

“Frankly, there’s not a damn thing you can do to stop it.”

Thorn opened his mouth to respond, but before any words escaped, a tall man in a Hawaiian shirt stepped from behind the bank of monitors with a shotgun at his hip. Without pause, he raised it to his shoulder and fired.

The sound of the shot was deafening in the tiny room as the blast caught Nio square in the chest, launching him into Thorn. The force knocked Thorn to his stomach, sending the Glock clattering across the floor.

“Nio!” Thorn yelled, his ears ringing as he scrambled toward the gun.

“I told you you couldn’t stop me,” Gold taunted, his wheelchair creaking as he turned to face forward, beginning to peck away at his controls.

The man in the floral shirt racked the gun and circled around the enormous table, raising it back to his shoulder. He first leveled it on Nio, who lay motionless on the floor, a pool of blood expanding around him.

Thinking better of it, he turned his attention to Thorn.

A second blast tore through the room, chewing up a swath of floor less than two feet from Thorn as he grabbed up the Glock and rolled to the other side of the table.

As he moved, he could feel the heat rising from the blast, particles of wood slapping against his legs.

The man walked around the opposite side of the table, again working the heavy slide of the shotgun. Lying flat on his side, Thorn peered beneath the table, making out the undercarriage of Gold’s wheelchair. Holding the gun two inches above the floor, he counted off seconds in his head, listening to footsteps, waiting for the light between the two wheels to disappear.

The moment it blinked out Thorn squeezed the trigger, the bullet ripping into the man’s ankle, a cry of pain sounding out. A moment later his heavy frame crashed to the floor, Thorn putting three more rounds into him, each one slamming into center mass.

Scrambling to all fours, he crawled around the side of the table and came up on a knee, holding the Glock out in front of him. He peered around the corner and saw the man lying on the floor, rings of blood staining his Hawaiian shirt.

The shotgun lay beside him as he stared with open eyes at the ceiling.

Keeping the gun poised in front of him, Thorn rose and stared at Gold. “Turn the transmitter off.”

Gold stared back at him. “So you killed my old friend Jasper. Do you really think that’s enough to make me have a sudden change of heart?”

Thorn drew the hammer back on the gun. “Turn it off now.”

“Kill me,” Gold said. “This project is far more important than I alone could ever be.”

Shifting at the waist, Thorn rotated toward the control panel and fired the remainder of his clip. Sparks flew as chunks of metal controls spewed backwards.

To his surprise, the system kept running. Only the clicking sound of a firing pin striking air greeted his ears.

Gold broke into a throaty laugh, throwing his head back in bitter amusement. “See, boy, this is destiny. It is going to happen whether you want it to or not.”

Thorn stared from the gun to Gold. “Those things can’t detonate without the transmitter telling them to.”

“Right you are,” Gold said, humor still edging his voice.

Pushing off his back foot, Thorn rushed forward and grabbed the side of Gold’s wheelchair, jerking it upward, dumping the man to the ground. Lifting the chair high above his head, he slammed it down onto the control panel one time after another.

All amusement fled from Gold as he watched in horror, screaming for Thorn to stop.

Paying him no mind, Thorn pounded away, going until both the electronics and the wheelchair were nothing but twisted heaps of metal.

By the time he was done he could barely breath, panting as he turned to face Gold.

Lying on the floor, the man had propped himself up on one hand, the other outstretched as anguish filled his face. “Why? Why when I was so close?”

Thorn didn’t bother to respond. He left the pathetic old man in a crumpled ball on the floor and shifted his attention to Nio, pulling his phone from his pocket as he dropped to a knee.

Already Nio’s eyes were shut, blood seeping from the gaping wound in his chest. A circle the size of a basketball had ballooned on the floor behind him, barely a hint of a pulse present.

“Backup is six minutes out and closing,” Ingram said, snapping the line up on the first ring.

“We’ve got a civilian down,” Thorn said. “Send a life flight. Now.”

Thorn ended the call without waiting for a response. Again he took stock of Nio before him, guilt and rage both building within.

It would still be several minutes at best before help arrived, minutes that his friend didn’t have.

Malevolence on his face, Thorn turned to look at Gold, the old man still fighting to drag himself across the floor. He watched the feeble effort for several moments, feeling the wrath grow inside him, before pushing himself to his feet and walking across to the rubble of the control panel.

“What?” Gold asked from the floor, watching him move. “What else can you possibly destroy now?”

Shoving aside the twisted remains of the wheelchair and the broken circuitry of the unit, Thorn found what he was looking for.

At the bottom of the mess, dented but not destroyed, was the Vaporizer.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing with that?” Gold asked. “You just destroyed my detonator, you idiot!”

Thorn ignored him, sliding the knife from his back pocket and using it to wrench the top of the box free. Removing the panel behind the transmitter, he sliced through the plastic casing of the two input wires and twisted them around one another.

The red light shifted to green atop the Vaporizer as a low humming filled the room. A soft rumbling could be heard in the base of the box as Thorn set it in the middle of the table, far from the outstretched reach of Gold.

“You can’t do this!” Gold yelled. “You can’t do this to me!”

Dropping to a knee, Thorn placed a hand behind Nio’s neck and knees and lifted him from the floor. A small wheeze slid from Nio as Thorn hefted him up, already heading for the door.

Behind him on the floor he left Gold, secure in the knowledge that Liberation Day was successful in taking at least one victim.

Chapter Sixty-Five

 

 

“Mr. Hardy, so very good to see you again,” Eric Olson said as Paul Hardy strode into the office. As he did so, he leaned forward at the waist in a half bow, his tie hanging down. “Governor Milton has been expecting you.”

“That mean I can go on in?” Hardy asked, not bothering to even look over at the young man beside him.

”Come on in, Paul,” Milton called from the office, leaving Olson standing with his mouth open.

Without breaking stride, Hardy walked straight into the Governor’s office, Olson scurrying in behind him. “Can I get you gentlemen anything? Coffee, water, soda?”

Hardy cast a sideways glare at Olson, dismissing him with a wave of his hand and turning his attention to Milton.

“No, I think we’re good,” Milton said. “Close the door behind you.”

Olson’s cheeks reddened as he bowed again and retreated from the room. Both men waited for the door to click closed behind him before grins creased their faces.

“Never gets old, does it?” Milton asked.

“After what he pulled last time? I’d say he got off easy, wouldn’t you?”

Milton chuckled and said, “Kid’s been walking on eggshells ever since it happened. You can tell it was the first time in his privileged life anybody ever so much as said a cross word to him. Kind of amusing to watch.”

Hardy returned the chuckle. “Like a baby colt learning to walk, I’m sure.”

Unable to hold it back, Milton let out a loud guffaw at the symbolism. “Something like that.”

The two sat silent for a moment, letting the laughter float from the air.

“So, to what do I owe the pleasure of an invitation today?” Hardy asked.

“Ah, yes,” Milton said as he leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers across his stomach. He measured Hardy for a moment, trying to determine the proper words to use. “I’m curious as to how things are going with regards to the conversation we had last time you were here.”

The question brought a bit of surprise to Hardy’s features as he crossed his legs and adjusted his tie before him. “Governor, sir. You know I consider myself a friend to this office, but you also know how I am about my business practices, friends or not.”

“Oh, I know, I know,” Milton said, leaning forward and having a hand in front of him. “I don’t mean to pry into a single detail of what happened. I just meant to seek your opinion about the services I recommended.”

“Ah,” Hardy said, his face relaxing a bit.

“Are you finding them adequate for what was needed?” Milton asked, placing the words out there so as to not offend.

“I think what you meant to ask is, did I find them adequate for what I needed?”

Milton’s face sagged a bit. “Oh, so it’s over already? It didn’t go well?”

“Quite the opposite,” Hardy replied.

“They’re done?” Milton asked. “Has it even been a week?”

“They were quite efficient,” Hardy said, nodding. “Of that, there is no denying.”

“Wow,” Milton said, his eyes drifting to the far wall across from him. “And just like that, it’s over?”

“Not entirely,” Hardy said. “There is still a loose end or two to tie up, but the heavy lifting is certainly behind us.”

Milton let out a low shrill whistle and settled back into his chair. “So the project you had? It must not have been that large I take it?”

Hardy switched the crossing of his legs. “With all due respect, I would not have called you if it weren’t a dire situation.”

“So it was big?” Milton pressed.

“Pray you never know just how big,” Hardy responded.

Milton’s eyes narrowed a bit at the comment and more questions jumped to mind, but he let them slide. “So it was big, and they handled it with ease…”

“I’m sorry if I seem crass, but might I inquire as to why you ask?” Hardy said.

Letting the lingering questions fade from his mind, Milton pulled his full attention back to Hardy before him. He spread his hands a few inches to either side and said, “Respecting that I too must exercise some level of diplomacy in what I divulge, a situation has presented itself.”

A look of realization crept across Hardy’s face. “You need to know if these guys are the real deal?”

Milton mulled the question for a moment. “In as many words? Yes.”

Hardy smirked and reached into the inner pocket of his suit coat. He removed a long, thin wallet from it and pulled out the same business card Milton had given him several days before. “The truth is I still don’t know a whole lot about them. What I do know is they have a guy working for them named Thorn Byrd.

“Ask for him by name. My associates and I all endorse him to the fullest.”

Chapter Sixty-Six

 

 

For the first time in the ongoing history of their partnership, Luis Cardoza was the first to arrive. He pulled up to the mansion ten minutes before seven, directing the driver to idle past the front door and park off to the side. There he remained seated in the car, a small box of Cuban cigars in his lap.

Three hours earlier, Cardoza had been out on his boat with his wife and children. He and his son were fishing while his wife and daughter sunbathed on the deck. The call came in from Hardy himself, immediately cutting the day short and sending them headed for shore.

Hardy was very cryptic in his message, stating just that something had come up and it was urgent that they convene. Cardoza knew him to be a prudent man that never used hyperbole and if he said the meeting was a necessity, it was a necessity.

Five minutes later, Billy Turner pulled into the driveway and came to a stop a few feet behind Cardoza. The late afternoon sun was just beginning to slide down in the western sky, throwing a harsh glare as the two men emerged from their respective vehicles at the same time.

Cradling the cigars in his left hand, Cardoza extended his right to Turner. “Good to see you, my friend.”

“Good to see you as well,” Turner said, shifting a small cask of whiskey into his left hand and returning the handshake. “Any idea what this is about?”

The two men walked to the front door and passed through as it swung open without a sound.

“I can speculate, but nothing concrete,” Cardoza said. ”You?”

Turner shook his head. “Same here. I tried to press him on the phone, but he wouldn’t say a word.”

Together the pair walked through the main foyer of the house and into the dining room. To their surprise, there was no food or drink waiting for them, instead just Paul Hardy seated at the head of the table.

At the sight of them he rose and said, “Luis, Billy, thank you for coming.”

“You said it was important,” Turner replied.

Hardy picked up a letter from the table in front of him and held it up. “Oh, believe me, it is. Please, come with me.”

Cardoza and Turner cast each other a quick glance and placed the items they were holding on the table before following Hardy through the house and out into a large garage. A row of metal doors fitted for automobile use lined one side of it and a large roll-top door over fifteen feet across and twenty feet high outfitted the other.

Behind each of the smaller doors were a series of restored antique cars and motorcycles. Of no consequence to any of the men, together they walked past the collection to the far side of the garage where the roll-top was open and the early evening sun streamed in.

Several feet in from the edge of the garage stood a large wooden crate, measuring nearly five feet square. There were no marking of any kind on it, the wood fresh and roughhewn.

Hardy walked them up beside the crate and pulled the letter he was holding from the envelope. “This letter was brought to me today by special courier. It reads:

 

Dear Mr. Hardy,

I apologize for communicating in such a manner, but unfortunately I am unable to make this delivery myself. I made a deal with Mr. Cardoza and Mr. Turner, and this is me keeping my end of it.

 

At five o’clock this afternoon, you will receive a second delivery. A truck will arrive and unload one unmarked wooden crate. Please trust there is nothing in it that is volatile or will endanger you in any way.

 

Please convene with Mr. Turner and Mr. Cardoza before opening.

 

Best,

Thorn Byrd

 

At the mention of Thorn’s name, both Cardoza and Turner nodded slightly, though neither said anything.

“Emile!” Hardy shouted as a man materialized carrying a crowbar and mallet. He went to work on the side panel facing them with the tools, ripping away at the cross pieces adorning it.

After five minutes, the sound of wood splintering could be heard and Emile stepped back as the heavy wooden panel fell to the ground.

Without a word, he melted back into the garage as the three men stood and stared into the box.

Turner was the first to speak, a smile spreading across his face. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Cardoza nodded. “I like the way that boy does business.”

In the box, lying in a ball on the floor, was Marc Tallo. His hands and feet were both bound behind him and he appeared to be unconscious. Hardy stepped forward and picked up a small box on the floor, opening it and pulling out a second white envelope and a large medical syringe.

Dropping the syringe back into the box, Hardy placed it on the ground by his feet and opened the letter.

 

Mr. Cardoza, Turner, and Hardy,

 

Again, I apologize for having to make good on our agreement in this way, but pressing matters forced me out of town on short notice. Please don’t take it as any sign of disrespect.

 

Per our agreement, here is Mr. Tallo. I hope you won’t think ill of me for spilling the beans too early, but before tranquilizing him, I did share with him what he had to look forward to when he woke up.

 

The look on his face was priceless.

 

Right now Mr. Tallo is infused with enough sedative to keep him tranquilized for another forty-eight hours. Use that time to take him wherever you choose and when you are ready, use the reversing agent in the syringe.

 

He’ll be alert and ready for you within a half hour.

 

With that, gentlemen, I hope you consider my side of the agreement fulfilled. Again, please excuse my absence and if there is ever anything I can do for any of you, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

 

Thank you all for your assistance this past week.

 

Best,

Thorn Byrd

 

The three of them walked to the crate and peered down at Tallo. His hair was a bit disheveled and a small bruise had formed near his left eye, but otherwise he looked just as he had the last time they saw him.

“You’re right,” Turner said. “I like the way that boy does business.”

A wicked smile formed across Cardoza’s face. “He certainly held up his end of the bargain.”

“You know,” Hardy said, “this kind of thing is generally outside my purview. I have people on staff to do this stuff for me.

“This time, however, I feel like our friend Tallo may have earned a little special attention.”

Cardoza smirked, his grin still in place. “I agree. I feel like this one may require a personal touch. You got any ideas, Billy?”

A matching smile grew across Turner’s face. “Oh, I’ve got a few.”

Epilogue

 

 

A thin drizzle fell from the gray sky, pushing the humidity out of the air as a light breeze blew in from the ocean. Coupled together, they nudged the temperature to just shy of seventy degrees, unheard of for June in Miami.

Thorn stood with the rain falling on his head and running in thin rivulets down his face. Several trees with ample leaves for protection stood nearby, but he remained stationary. He didn’t even notice the precipitation soaking his black suit and matting his dress shirt to his skin.

His entire attention was aimed eighty yards in front of him, where a small funeral was in progress.

Two tombstones stood side by side, announcing the passing of Jorge and Antonio Garcia. An assortment of flower arrangements stood on either end, the rain beating them into misshapen orbs of color.

From where he stood, Thorn could see Iggy and her mother sitting in the front row with a smattering of people lined behind them. He was too far away to hear what the pastor was saying, but he could see Iggy consoling her mother as her entire body shook with sobs.

Thorn stood rod straight and watched the proceedings from a distance. He wasn’t hiding from them, remaining in plain sight, but something inside kept him from walking any closer.

Thorn watched as the pastor spread his hands and bowed his head before falling silent and gripping his Bible in front of him. One by one, the mourners walked by the caskets, each of them placing a handful of dirt or running their fingertips along the rain soaked caskets as they passed.

The entire affair lasted less than half an hour.

Thorn stood and watched as many of the people drifted to their cars and drove away. Iggy and her mother thanked each of them and when the last had departed, she made her way toward him.

Her face still bore the effects of her time in Gold’s basement and her walk was stiff and purposeful.

“Thank you for coming,” she said as she approached.

“I’m sorry there was reason for me to be here,” Thorn responded.

Iggy crossed her arms in front of her black dress and shivered, a splint covering the bulk of her right hand. After a moment, she moved to Thorn’s side and slid her arm through his. She rested her head on his shoulder and wept as Thorn placed his lips against her curly hair and let her cry.

“You know, we’d have had to do this anyway,” Iggy said. “My father was gone before either one of us even got to Boston.”

Thorn remained silent.

For three days he had tortured himself with the fact that Nio should not have been in that house. He’d played it back a hundred times, knowing that in the moment there was no place to drop him, no way Nio would have been dismissed, but that didn’t make things any easier for him to digest.

“I did some research,” Iggy said, drawing Thorn’s attention into the moment. “In mythology, a Thornbird is a song bird that gets its name because the moment it is born, it begins looking for a perfect thorn. When it finds it, it impales itself upon it, unleashing the most beautiful sound ever heard.”

Iggy fell silent for a moment, her intention implied.

“The plan was to name me after my grandfather,” Thorn said, “but when my mother died giving birth, my father thought the name seemed more fitting.”

They stood in silence for several minutes, each drawing warmth from the other.

“I still really dislike you,” Iggy whispered.

One corner of Thorn’s lips creased. “I’m aware.”

Iggy turned and slid one hand around Thorn’s waist, the other behind his neck. Thorn returned the embrace, the two hugging for several moments before pulling apart and looking at each other.

Tears streamed from Iggy’s eyes as rain dripped down Thorn’s face.

“Don’t let this be the last time I see you, okay?” Iggy whispered.

“You call me if you ever need anything,” Thorn replied, his tone just as low. “And even a few times when you don’t.”

Iggy nodded once as she released Thorn and backed away. After several steps, she turned and made her way on to the gravesite. She and her mother stood together for another minute before they too went to their car and drove away.

Thorn waited until their taillights had faded into the distance before approaching the caskets. Steady rain continued to pour down upon them, beading up and running to the sides in thick streams.

“It wasn’t your fault, you know.”

Thorn recognized the voice without turning around, saying nothing as the owner appeared beside him.

“Sorry to come here like this,” Ingram said.

“Why should you be sorry for showing up? The company paid for it; I’m sure the family wouldn’t mind you being here.”

“Nio helped us out. Paying our respects was the least we could do.”

Thorn nodded. “It was a nice gesture. I appreciated it.”

Ingram matched the nod. “When I spoke to the company about doing it, I asked them how things had gone in the other cities. Everything went well. Over ten thousand Vaporizers were disabled and confiscated, and nearly that many were disposed of right away.”

Thorn accepted the information and said, “I spoke to Turner this morning. They received our package and said we are more than even. If we’re ever in need again, don’t hesitate to call. Cardoza said the same.”

Together, they stood in the rain, staring down at the scene before them. After a moment, each started to back away.

“What is you’re not telling me?” Thorn asked, already sensing that Ingram’s presence carried far more with it than just paying respects.

Ingram exhaled and said, “When I spoke to the company, they informed me we’ve been given a new project.”

A flash of heat passed through Thorn as he stopped walking and looked at Ingram. “You have got to be kidding me.”

“Nope.”

“They know where I am and why I’m here. They couldn’t wait one more day before finding us another assignment?”

Ingram too stopped moving, his stance matching Thorn’s. “We weren’t assigned. This time, we were requested.”

 

Thank You For Reading!

 

Thank you so much for taking the time to read my work. I know you have literally millions of options available when it comes to making Kindle purchases, and I truly appreciate you taking the time to select this novel. I hope you enjoyed it.

 

If you would be so inclined, I would greatly appreciate a review letting me know your thoughts on the work. Going against traditional writer protocol I look at all reviews, not in some form of misguided vanity but in hopes of producing a better product. I assure you I do take what is said to heart and am constantly trying to incorporate your suggestions.

 

In addition, as a token of my appreciation, please enjoy a free download of my novel 21 Hours, available HERE.

 

Best,

Dustin Stevens

About the Author

 

 

Dustin Stevens is the author of more than 20 novels, 15 of them having become #1 Amazon bestsellers, including the Hawk Tate and Zoo Crew series. The Boat Man, the first release in the best-selling Reed & Billie series, was recently named the 2016 Indie Award winner for E-Book fiction and the 3rd Grand Prize Winner for all books – hard cover, paperback and ebook.

 

He is an award-winning screenwriter in the prestigious Harvardwood and Emerging Screenwriters competitions, as well as the Nashville International Film Festival and the Honolulu Film Awards. In addition, he is the only multi-time finalist at the Big Bear Lake International Film Festival.

 

A member of the Mystery Writers of America and Thriller Writers International, he resides in Honolulu, Hawaii.


Liberation Day - A Thorn Byrd Novel

In occupied Germany in 1942, the young son of a Russian diplomat is picked up by the SS police, never to be seen again. In present day Washington, D.C., an employee stands before the controlling board of his company and makes a pitch that will either make or end his career. In Boston Harbor, shipments of high-end automobiles bound for Italy and containers of refugees inbound from Cuba continue to go missing. At the center of everything stands Thorn Byrd, a recent college graduate just twenty-two years old. Plucked away from the life he had planned and thrust into one he never knew existed, he is forced to decipher who is behind the sinister plot unfolding around him and the global implications it holds. Aiding in his journey are the combined forces of the Cuban and Irish cartels, both of which have lost a great deal of face and are seeking revenge, along with a brother/sister pair desperate to find a lost family member. Opposing them are a conglomerate with ties reaching back to the Second World War and bent on righting wrongs seventy years in the making. Armed only with his instincts and the help of those around him, Thorn must determine who to trust and what to do before it is too late.

  • ISBN: 9781370657322
  • Author: Dustin Stevens
  • Published: 2016-12-20 23:05:41
  • Words: 94951
Liberation Day - A Thorn Byrd Novel Liberation Day - A Thorn Byrd Novel