a centuries-old conspiracy bent on world domination. Powerful men will stop at
nothing to use the weapon to achieve their goal, even at the risk of nuclear war.
Nick Carter works for the Project, the shadow hand of the US President.
Selena Connor is his teammate and lover. Their relationship is tested
to the breaking point as they are forced to question their commitment to each other and to the violent life they have chosen.
From the streets of Prague to the jungles of Mexico, from the hills of Tuscany to the plains of Eastern Russia, the story moves with relentless pace toward a final, explosive confrontation.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
It was what he didn’t hear that woke him.
Nick Carter listened. No insects. No frogs. No rustlings in the trees, no familiar sounds of the night. It was cool in the cabin after the heat of day. The clean scent of California cedars and damp earth drifted through the open windows.
Selena Connor slept next to him. He touched her on the shoulder and she came awake. His voice was soft in her ear.
“Get dressed. Something’s wrong.”
Nick pushed off the sheet. He placed his feet on the hard wooden floor and picked up the .45 on the nightstand.
Selena slipped naked out of bed. Her clothes were on a chair near the front bedroom window. Wranglers, a green tank top, underwear. She stayed away from the window, skipped the underwear, pulled on the jeans and the top. She slipped her feet into a pair of Nikes and slipped her Glock from its holster.
Nick stepped into his pants. He heard a tiny scraping sound of metal against metal outside the window, a familiar click as the lever released. Adrenaline flooded his body, a rush of raw energy.
“Selena, Grenade!” he shouted.
He threw his forearm across his face and ran straight through the screen door that led onto the deck, Selena behind him. He leapt off the deck, stumbled and fell and rolled to his feet again. Pain shot up his spine. The explosion of the grenade rocked the cabin.
The cedars were thirty exposed yards away. They ran across the gap and reached the concealing shadows of the grove. Nick looked back at his cabin. Bright flames lit the bedroom. The fire was already crawling up the outside wall toward the green metal roof.
Incendiary, he thought. An incendiary grenade. Shit. He took deep breaths and calmed himself.
“How many?” Selena asked. Her voice was low, tense.
“Probably more than one.” He watched the flames spreading. “We have to take them down. I’ll circle right and come out near the front. You go left. Watch for me.”
He touched her arm. “Don’t get hurt.”
He moved away. Selena watched him go. Her heart thumped against her ribs. She began moving though the trees, her pistol held in both hands down at her side.
The flames roared through the dry wood of the cabin. Red and orange and yellow embers soared into the night sky. Small explosions sounded from inside the burning building. The noise covered Nick’s movement through the cedars. He pushed branches aside and lifted his bare feet and set them down with careful precision, feeling the uneven ground. He stayed away from the edge of the grove and circled the flames.
He heard them talking before he saw them, two white men dressed in black. They had Uzis.
“They might of got out.” The first man said. He was about six feet tall, lean. Ex-military, Nick thought, the way he’s standing with that weapon. The second man was short, stocky.
“From that? Are you kidding?”
He waved at the building. The cabin was engulfed in flame. The framework began to appear as the inferno consumed the walls and interior.
Nick raised his pistol and listened.
“He shouted before it went off,” the tall one said.
“Yeah, well. He can shout all the way to hell. They’re fried. Let’s get out of here.”
“Hey, look over there. A cat.” The tall one pointed.
A big, orange cat sat at the edge of the clearing, curious, watching the flames. Nick recognized him.
The cat was always around when they showed up. Nick owed him. He’d saved their lives a year before.
“Watch this,” the man said. “Cat food.” He raised his Uzi.
Nick put two rounds in the center of the tall man’s back. He went down hard. The next two shots hit the short man in the chest and knocked him backward onto the ground.
Burps ran into the woods. Now we’re even, buddy. Nick watched and waited. The bodies didn’t move. He looked right and left, saw nothing. No one. He walked out into the open.
Selena’s pistol barked in the woods, three hard, flat echoes. A third man fell out into the clearing, dressed in black like the others. Selena stepped from the trees. Nick went over to the man, scanning the shadows. He kicked another Uzi out of reach. Blood bubbled on the man’s lips.
Nick knelt down. “Who sent you?”
The man looked up, his face contorted with fear. He coughed blood. He tried to speak and coughed again, a sudden gusher of bright red that spilled out over the brown earth. His chest stopped moving.
Selena walked over and stared down at the man she’d killed. Don’t think about it. Deal with it later. She was getting good at tucking her thoughts and feelings away until she could look at them.
“Damn it,” she said.
Nick got to his feet and gestured at the bodies. “They deserved what they got. That one over there was going to kill Burps. Just for fun.”
“You’re bleeding a little,” she said. His chest was crossed with welts from the branches and scratches where the screen door had cut him going through.
“It’s nothing. We’d better call Harker. There’s a backup phone in the truck. ”
Selena watched the shifting colors of the flames play over him. His gray eyes were black in the night. His skin glowed red in the firelight, the old scars dark shadows and spots and hollows on his body. They walked to his Silverado. He pulled a gym bag from behind the seat and put on running shoes and an old black tee shirt. He took a phone from the bag and stuck it in his pocket.
The cabin burned. They could feel the heat all the way across the clearing.
“Let’s check the bodies.” He went to the first man he’d killed and started going through his pockets. Selena took the man next to him.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Not here, either.” He went to the last body and felt a hard shape through the clothes. He pulled out a cell phone, the kind of cheap throwaway model you could buy anywhere with prepaid time. He pocketed the phone.
“This place is going to be crawling with cops and fire trucks soon,” he said. “We have to get the bodies out of sight. Help me drag them into the trees.”
They moved the three dead men deep into the woods, went back and collected the weapons, put them with the bodies.
He handed her the phone from the bag. “Give Harker a call while I find some socks.”
Selena stood with the phone and watched him walk back to the truck. As she watched, the propane tank in back of the cabin exploded. She looked at the blazing building and realized she still held the Glock in her other hand.
How did I get here? she thought.
It was a few minutes before six in the morning in Virginia. Elizabeth Harker had been behind her desk for more than an hour. A cup of black coffee warmed her hand. She felt at home when she was behind the desk. The Project had become her life.
Elizabeth Harker had wide green eyes and milk-white skin. She was a small woman. Her size and looks and raven black hair made people think of a Tolkien fantasy where elves and fairies danced in the woods. People sometimes confused size and gender with competence and wrote her off. It was a mistake no one made twice.
Her satellite phone signaled a call.
Trouble, she thought, it’s too early. She picked up.
“Director. Someone came after us at Nick’s cabin. We need a clean up.”
“Three. The cabin is toast. Literally.”
“Are you all right?”
“Yes. Nick’s scratched up some.”
“Here, he’ll tell you.”
Elizabeth heard Selena say something and Nick came on.
“Director, we need a clean up team.”
“So Selena said. What happened?” She listened while Nick told her.
“Hold on,” she said. She picked up her desk phone, spoke briefly to someone on the other end. Set the phone down.
“A team is on the way. It will take them two hours. Hide the bodies and weapons before anyone gets there.”
Nick watched the embers rise, every one a fire waiting to happen. There’d been a freak rain the day before. The cabin was in a wide clearing. There was plenty of space around the flames and there was no breeze. It might be all right. In the distance he heard the first siren.
“Fire trucks and the Sheriff will be here soon.”
“What will you tell them?” Harker’s voice echoed over the satellite link.
“Propane leak. They’ll buy that, the tank went up with the cabin.”
“Any idea who they were? Any ID?”
“No. A cell phone, nothing else. There might be something on it.”
“Get back here as soon as you can. Don’t get arrested.”
Elizabeth leaned back in her chair and thought about it. If someone had gone after Nick and Selena, they might go after the others. She called Ronnie Peete and told him what had happened. She called Lamont and Stephanie and told them Ronnie would pick them up.
The Project was the shadow hand of the President. No one was supposed to know who was on the team or where they lived. The Project was secret as far as the public was concerned, but it wasn’t the public throwing grenades. Over the last few months too many people had found out about her group. She was getting the feeling that secret wasn’t the operative word anymore.
Elizabeth sipped her coffee and looked at the picture of the Twin Towers she kept on her desk. Anytime she began to doubt why she was here, all she needed to do was look at that picture.
The day hadn’t started well. She wondered what else it would bring.
Ronnie Peete and Lamont Cameron were on their way to pick up Stephanie. They rode in Ronnie’s black Hummer,
“What do you figure?” Lamont said. He looked in the mirror on the door. A black Crown Vic tailed them a block behind.
“He was outside your building when I picked you up. It could be a cop or Feds. Could be the people who went for Nick. Harker said they used a grenade.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time. Nick’s got bad karma or something about grenades.”
“Karma? You going New Age on me?”
“Yeah, right.” Lamont took out his pistol and pulled the slide partway back to check for a round. He rested it in his lap. “Nick’s got to be pissed about the cabin.”
Ronnie glanced in his mirror. The car was still there. Another black Ford entered the intersection ahead and turned toward them. The car behind sped up to close the gap.
“Here we go,” Ronnie said.
“Think they’re feds?”
Someone leaned out of the oncoming car as it neared and fired a machine pistol at them. The Hummer was fitted with bullet proof glass. The windshield starred with the rounds.
“Nope. Not feds.”
Ronnie stepped hard on the emergency brake and cranked the steering left. The Hummer slid into a screeching 180 turn and slammed sideways into the other car and knocked it off to the side.
Ronnie released the brake, punched the accelerator down and headed straight for the second car. Lamont saw panic on the driver’s face as the Hummer bore down on him. He tried to turn out of the way.
Ronnie’s truck was modified with armor plating, a beefed up frame, a turbocharged engine and a lot of extra horses. A heavy black steel bumper and grill dominated the front. It hit the Ford like a 6000 pound hammer and bulldozed it over the curb. Ronnie kept the pedal down and pushed the car into a store front with a big plate glass window. The window disintegrated in an explosion of glass. Neatly dressed mannequins fell out onto the pavement.
A man scrambled out of the car. Ronnie rolled out of the Hummer and shot him, three quick rounds. Down the block, a woman started screaming.
Lamont got out and squatted down behind the Hummer a second before a large man came out of the car across the street firing an Uzi. The 9mm rounds rang against the steel plating on the Hummer. Lamont’s first and second shots missed. The third and fourth shots didn’t. The man dropped out of sight.
Ronnie fired. The driver fell forward over the wheel.
That fast, it was over. The echoes died away. Traffic was stopped at the intersections. Nothing moved on the block. Lamont saw a curtain flutter in an apartment window and swung toward it, pistol aimed in both hands. He saw a terrified woman step back out of sight.
Steam rose under the buckled hood of the car in the store front. The driver was dead, his head at an odd angle. The front seat passenger had a thick shard of plate glass from the store window sticking in his neck. An Uzi was clenched in his dead hand. The front of the car interior was wet and red with blood. The man Ronnie had killed lay sprawled on the sidewalk by the open car door.
“Let’s check the other one,” Lamont said.
They started across the street. No one moved by the second car. Ronnie saw gas underneath. He held out his arm and stopped Lamont. The gas tank exploded, ripping through the Ford.
Sirens were coming, lots of them. They went back to the Hummer. The right side was a mess. The rear quarter panel was crumpled and bent, the shiny black paint along the side marred and scratched, the front fender buckled in against the tire. The metalwork and windows were pocked with bullet holes.
“Messed up your ride,” Lamont said.
Ronnie looked at his car and shook his head. “We’ll need help with the cops. I’ll call in.”
The team met in Harker’s office. Nick and Selena had gotten in from California an hour before.
Stephanie Willits sat on the couch. She was the Project’s computer guru, a hacker genius. Everything about computers was in her keeping. Stephanie had dark eyes and hair and a pleasant face people characterized as friendly. She usually had a ready smile. At the moment, the smile had gone missing.
Ronnie sat next to her. The story of the Navajo Nation was written on his face. He had square, solid features and dark brown eyes. His nose was large, Roman looking, a noble nose. His skin was light brown with an underlying reddish tint that got darker during the sunny months. He had on one of his favorite shirts, a gaudy panorama of big-finned Cadillacs full of joyous surfers cruising the Hawaiian sands.
A silver pen that had belonged to FDR lay on Harker’s desk next to a picture of the Twin Towers on 9/11. She picked it up and twirled it in her fingers.
“No question this was a concerted attack,” she said. “There were no IDs on the people who came after you, in California or here. But we found out who most of them were.”
“How?” Selena asked.
She looked fresher than Nick, but not by much. Her face showed lines of fatigue, her violet eyes were bloodshot. She wore jeans and a blue sweatshirt and hadn’t bothered with makeup. Her red-blonde hair was pulled back in a short ponytail held by a rubber band. She was letting it grow out.
A long way from when she first walked in here, Harker thought. She’s changed. No more rich girl look.
“The three in California were ex military. Their prints were on file. We couldn’t get prints from the one who burned up, but the others used to be with Langley.”
“Mercenaries,” Nick said, “and ex spooks.”
“I don’t like that. Where did we see this before? Spooks and mercs?””
“In Texas,” Ronnie said. He still felt the effects of the wound he’d taken there. “You think it’s the same people, Director?”
“Yes. There was one incoming call on the phone you found. It traced back to a company called Endgame Development. They design interactive, violent video games. Think Friday the 13th in 3D and high definition. Endgame is a subsidiary shell of a subsidiary of an entertainment company owned by Malcolm Foxworth.”
“Foxworth runs AEON.”
“That’s why I think it’s the same people.”
“What do you want us to do?” Nick asked.
“Endgame is in Brighton Beach, in Brooklyn. I want you and Lamont to go there and see what you can find out.” Elizabeth fiddled with her pen. “This could have been a preemptive strike, so we don’t get in the way of something. They’d go after you four because you’re the guts of the fire team. Steph and I were probably on the list after they got the shooters handled.”
“Big mistake.” Lamont smiled. “They don’t know you two very well.”
Lamont had retired from the Navy Seals just before joining the Project. A shrapnel scar ran from his forehead down across his nose and cheek. It made a thin ridge of pink against his coffee-colored skin. He had pale blue eyes, a gift from his Ethiopian grandfather.
Selena said, “What could they be planning?”
Harker tapped her pen. “If the past is any indication we’ll find out soon enough.”
The man who led AEON looked out from his penthouse windows over the city of London. The view took in most of the city. It was a good spot to contemplate power.
Malcolm Foxworth was a small man with a large presence. His hair was black with streaks of silver and carefully styled. His ears were a little too large for his head. His eyebrows formed thin, black streaks over flat eyes blue as glacier ice. Foxworth’s face was unremarkable, common even. When he was angry, his complexion turned red. When he was very angry, his face turned chalk white.
Foxworth had started out with a small newspaper inherited from his father. Over the years he’d created a world-wide media empire by telling angry people what they wanted to hear. He controlled radio stations, newspapers, magazines and television outlets, all with one thing in common. Each worked to feed and strengthen the ominous cloud of divisiveness and fear spreading over the globe.
Fear was Foxworth’s stock in trade. Fear overwhelmed reason. Fearful people became angry and could be manipulated. The world’s leaders had always used fear to get what they wanted. They congratulated themselves and imagined themselves masters of the world. But few knew who pulled the strings that made the world dance.
Foxworth knew, because he was one of them. The conspiracy theorists were right about a hidden group seeking world domination but they’d gotten most of it wrong.
AEON had been called by many names over the centuries. The Illuminati. The Secret Masons. The Hidden Masters. The New World Order. The Trilateral Commission. The Bilderberg Group. Those were useful red herrings, shadows thrown up against the screen of human paranoia, psychological sleight of hand. No one had ever managed to expose the real conspiracy.
In the past year someone had begun to interfere.
Someone had pointed Harker’s dogs at the Demeter operation. It was like throwing sand into a machine with closely cut gears. Years of preparation had been destroyed in hours by an insignificant team of ignorant, washed up soldiers led by a woman. It wasn’t the first time she’d derailed one of AEON’s operations. Every time he thought about Harker, Foxworth wanted to take her throat in his hands and crush it.
Harker drew her power from the Presidency. President Rice didn’t play by the rules. He couldn’t be bribed, or persuaded to see reason about things that mattered. He was weak, opposed to war. Without him, Harker would become irrelevant.
Rice’s opponent in the upcoming US election was AEON’s puppet. Voting was untrustworthy, no matter what the polls predicted. Foxworth had no intention of waiting until November to see his man elected.
He was going to assassinate Rice, then eliminate Harker.
He gazed out at the changing London skyline. A light rain spattered the glass. Beyond the Thames, the giant Ferris wheel Londoners called the Eye stood out against the gray sky.
A sudden stab of blinding pain staggered him. He placed his hand against the thick glass of the window to steady himself. His vision blurred. Then his sight cleared and the pain on his skull receded. He walked unsteadily to his desk and sat down.
A door on the other side of the room opened. A tall, smartly dressed woman with pale skin and long black hair came in. She moved with unconscious ease and sexual promise. She glowed in a cream-colored suit that set off her hair. Her red blouse showed just enough cleavage to intrigue the eye. Her dark eyes glittered with unspoken thoughts.
Mandy Atherton had been a model at the top of her profession when she’d met Foxworth two years before. In the cutthroat world of high end fashion and beautiful women there was always someone scheming to take her place. Mandy was no fool. She knew where her future lay, and it wasn’t with the fashion industry. It lay in a rich man’s bed.
Lately Foxworth had been finding it difficult to perform, but that wasn’t a problem for Mandy. Besides, she had other ways to satisfy her needs. She was inventive and intelligent as well as attractive. During working hours she acted as Foxworth’s executive assistant.
“Malcolm, Doctor Morel is here.”
“About time. Send him in.”
Doctor Morel wore a goatee and mustache and a three piece dark suit that had cost a great deal of money. He was 50 years old, balding and beginning to show a paunch. He looked like an actor portraying Sigmund Freud. Custom shoes that added to his height and expensive cologne hinted at his vanity. In his right hand he carried a smooth black leather briefcase full of select medications.
Morel was under five and a half feet tall, one of the reasons Foxworth liked having him about. Aside from the bonus of his height, Morel was also discreet. He was a man who knew how to make his clients feel pampered and respected. More important, he knew how to make them feel better.
“Goddamn it, Morel, what took you so long? I can’t think with this headache.”
“Sorry, Malcolm, there was construction on the M1. I came as quickly as possible. Please, sit down.”
Foxworth insisted that associates he saw all the time call him by his first name. Worker bees called him “sir”.
Foxworth sat at his desk. Morel placed his case on the desk, opened it and pulled up a facing chair. He took out an instrument and shone a light into Foxworth’s eyes.
“Look up. Now right. Now left.” He put the instrument away, took out a vial of clear liquid and a syringe.
“Any other symptoms, Malcolm? Blurring of vision? Hearing problems? Any problems with balance?”
“Never mind that crap. Just give me something for this headache. I’ve got an important meeting in twenty minutes.”
“Of course.” Morel filled the syringe, squirted a few drops. “Pants, please.”
Foxworth stood. Morel noticed he was a bit unsteady, but said nothing. Foxworth exposed his buttock. Morel gave him the injection.
“You’ll feel better in a minute or two,” he said. “Are you still unwilling to put yourself in for a few tests? Just overnight.”
“I don’t want any tests.” Foxworth felt the drug working. The pain receded. He took a deep breath. “I don’t need any tests. These headaches are just stress.”
“Morel. I said I don’t want any bloody tests.”
Foxworth’s voice had gone cold. Something ancient and dangerous lay just beneath it. Morel took an involuntary step backward, as if he had just seen something unspeakably evil. Ridiculous, he thought. It’s just the stress talking.
Foxworth calmed himself. “Don’t ask me again. A long as I can reach you, I don’t need anything else.”
“I’m always available for you.” Morel closed his case.
The money he got for these visits guaranteed it. If his patient didn’t want tests, well, that was his decision. Morel had done what he could. He wouldn’t bring it up again, not after what Foxworth had said. For a moment, he’d actually felt threatened.
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