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by Robert Cook
Here’s the set-up:
An Alejandro “Cooch” Cuchulain Novel
The second in the Cooch series of national security techno-thrillers
Blend a dollop of Enlightenment history and philosophy for the lawyers and history buffs, a skosh of cool technology for the geekish, and a smidgen of business for the Wall Street crowd. Add to a boiling cauldron of passion and violence. Sprinkle with strong dialog and wit. Stir vigorously. Shazaam! Tomorrow’s headlines today, in Patriot and Assassin.
Patriot and Assassin places the protagonist, Alejandro ‘Cooch’ Cuchulain, at the heart of a plot to release nerve gas in one of our nation’s busiest stadiums, then later into the sadistic hands of the terrorist who planned that attack.
Cooch leads a Rhodes Scholar former Seal, a stunning MacArthur winning physicist, a former USMC Master Sniper and the former director of the CIA’s special operations unit, now working in the White House. Together, they engage a large contingent of Al-Qaeda, among others, while working to improve the life of Muslims.
Inspired by Arab Spring evidence that Middle Eastern culture will be transformed positively when Muslims are convinced that transformation is in their self-interest, Patriot and Assassin uses the proven lessons of the Enlightenment to expedite that transformation. More than simply sex and violence advance the story. Patriot and Assassin incorporates strong character development and powerful, thoughtful dialogue to drive this politico-thriller at a breakneck pace.
The team neither disdains violence on this journey to improve, nor avoids using the latest technology to make both the journey and the violence easier. Action flows seamlessly from Texas to Washington to Morocco to Yemen and back.
Former CIA warrior Cuchulain is a strong male protagonist working with a dynamic female protagonist in Dr. Caitlin O’Connor. This thriller brings a fresh dynamic to the genre. Patriot and Assassin positions itself as the thriller for thoughtful readers interested in observing strong, complex characters meeting complex world-wide challenges.
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Three bearded young men slipped into the algebra classroom and leaned against the back wall. Arms folded, they glared silently at the instructor, Hamza, as he ended his class for the day. Hamza usually ended his lectures with a passage from the Holy Word, the Koran, and some thoughts about current events in Yemen. He was finishing his comments just as the men entered the room.
Hamza had a voice that was beginning to be heard by the young and impressionable. His practice of saying a few critical, and sometimes incendiary, words to students at the end of classes was becoming fashionable. There was a burgeoning view among university professionals at Sana’a University, the largest in Yemen, that the intellectual freedom fundamental to their profession gave them license to criticize anything they viewed as wrong or inappropriate. Other professors were beginning to make their opinions heard in the classrooms.
Hamza was a member of a small group of devout Shiites. They met to study the Koran and to plan for the eventual overthrow of the Sunni powers that ruled Yemen and for the installation of Sharia law as interpreted by devout Shiites. It was the return of the caliphate to ruling the Arab world that drove their imaginations. As late as the twelfth century, Islam had ruled the world from Mongolia to Spain and would do so again, and more, when the Sunni apostates were defeated.
As young men drifted from the classroom in the cramped mathematics building, their feet caused mushrooms of dust as they scuffed from the room. When one student saw the men at the back, he began to walk with purpose, speaking quietly to a man at his side. In a moment, all of the young men were scurrying to avoid the gaze of the strangers.
Their instructor of algebra, Hamza, nervously gathered his papers from the table in the front of the room, shoved them into a small cloth case, and turned to the door. Suddenly they were there. One flipped open a worn, black nylon case with a five-pointed, gold and black badge attached.
“You will come with us,” he said.
The other two men grasped his arms and rushed him outside, where a dusty black Fiat sat idling, its rear door open at the curb. A fourth man sat behind the wheel, watching and waiting. Hamza began to struggle and yell to draw attention to his abduction.
“Call the police,” he screamed. The first man spun and buried his fist in Hamza’s stomach.
“We are the police,” he snarled. Hamza was thrown into the backseat by the other two men and the car lurched from its place. A black hood was thrown over Hamza’s head and tied. He finally drew a breath and then another.
A few minutes later, he was dragged from the car and rushed across a rough surface, inside a building. His hood was removed and he was thrust into a small room with a single chair bolted to the floor. Ragged, stained straps hung from its arms and legs. Hamza struggled. A wooden baton cracked across his shins. The blunt end of the baton was shoved into his solar plexus with a two-handed thrust. Hamza was again helpless as they strapped him into the chair. The policemen stood silently by the closed door and gazed at him. He stared defiantly back. One of them was pulling thick leather gloves over his hands.
The door opened and a smiling man walked in, light on his feet.
“So, Hamza, my friend,” he said. “I am Major Mohammed Vati.” Vati was a thick, dapper man. He wore a black wool suit with a matching waistcoat, despite the heat. There was a yellow cravat with blurred, faint blue horizontal lines. “You have been making talk to our students. Tell me what you had to say. Tell me all about your seditious friends.”
Hamza spat on the floor and snarled, “I will tell you nothing. You will answer to Allah for your apostasy.”
The smiling man nodded at the man with the gloves and stepped back quickly. A gloved fist smashed into Hamza’s nose and mouth, then again as flesh and blood sprayed around him. He spat a tooth to the floor.
“If you are not going to talk, Hamza, then you have no need for that traitorous mouth of yours to remain undamaged. You may nod your head when you have seen the errors of your ways and would like to speak. I suppose we should save your face from further damage until we have had a friendly conversation. We can have you cleaned up and out of here in a few minutes if you are reasonable. Would you like to speak now and be done with this unpleasantness?”
Hamza shook his head violently, and blood sprayed from his bleeding lips. A drop of Hamza’s blood hit Vati’s cravat. His face flushed as he stepped back.
“Well then, shall we get on with things, Hamza?” Major Vati took a white linen handkerchief from his back pocket and dabbed at the crimson stain. “You’re making a mess.” He walked to one of the men by the door and took the wooden baton from his hand. It was made of
thick wood and about thirty inches in length. There was a leather thong at one end, looped through a hole.
Vati walked to Hamza, still smiling as he slipped his hand through the leather loop. With a quick, wristy swing of the baton, its end hit Hamza on the outside of his left elbow. Another quick strike hit his right elbow. A dagger of white-hot pain shot into Hamza’s brain. A casual baton strike to his left knee and then the right caused the pain to magnify, intensify.
“Those little pain points will be sore tomorrow. We’ll work on them a bit more then. The next time they will hurt much more. If you fail to see reason, the low back is an attractive target. Are you ready to talk to me now, Hamza?”
The negative shake of Hamza’s head was less vigorous, but firm.
“We won’t break anything, Hamza, other than your nose, of course. Delivery of pain is hampered by broken bones. Pain is our ally when we ask urgent questions. We were hoping to visit with your friends today to convince them of the error of their ways, perhaps to frighten them. But there is more than one way to send that message to your seditious colleagues.”
Hamza sprayed scarlet spittle through broken lips. “Allah will curse you.”
“Will he? Inshallah. Perhaps the one cursed first is the one cursed worst, Hamza. Think about that.
“Feed him,” Vati said. “We’ll begin again in the morning. I have work to do. There is no hurry. Trash like this always talks.” He walked through the small door and closed it.
Two days later Hamza rose slowly from the ground where he had been shoved from the small portal where he had first arrived. His weakened arms had failed to arrest the impact of his fall, and his face had bounced on the rough gravel in the courtyard. He struggled to his feet and limped away from the government building, a stain spreading on his pant leg. He had soiled himself while strapped in the chair. Hamza was carrying his small case with assignment papers still to be corrected and a little money. It had been thrown on him as he hit the gravel. His feet shuffled erratically as he struggled for balance, and the pain lancing across his low back kept him stooped. He pushed at a ragged tooth with his tongue and moved his head to allow light to reach through the lumpy mass around his eyes. At a bus stop across the dusty square, he finally slumped on a bench.
The bus marked A4 would take him to a stop near his home. The two days of questioning before he provided answers to their questions should have provided enough warning for his brother and his other friends in Allah to have fled or gone into hiding. The wisdom of Allah would prevail on its own schedule. His wife would treat his wounds. She was due soon with their second child, another boy, Allah willing. His first son was now five years old and beginning his study of the Koran as he memorized key passages. Before long Hamza would teach him other things and initiate him in the study of mathematics. Learning the word of Allah, memorizing it, was of paramount importance, but mathematics was also a study of beauty.
A battered orange and tan bus with its side windows open stopped beside the bench with a hiss of its brakes. Its door swung open. The burly driver came down to help Hamza ascend the three steps. He jerked his face away from the stench when Hamza collapsed into a seat near the front of the aging bus, just behind the driver’s seat. The other passengers averted their faces; the square of the Secret Police was well known to a wary populace. One never knew when the Secret Police were watching. After a few minutes, the driver stopped the bus just a few blocks from Hamza’s residence. He rose from his seat and helped Hamza to the door and down to the pavement. He held Hamza’s hand and supported him for a moment.
“Good luck, my friend,” he said, as he climbed back in the bus, wiped the cracked vinyl seat with a piece of old newspaper, swung the door closed, and drove off.
The narrow street that led to Hamza’s small house was crowded with shops and cafes. As he struggled past, no one came to help him. The stench of cooking smoke hovered in the air.
At the end of the street, Hamza froze. His home was destroyed. The roof had partially collapsed. Tendrils of smoke curled from broken windows. He tried to run to it, but fell. Hamza struggled to his feet and made his urgent way more carefully. The front door was askew, nearly ripped from its hinges. On the floor a remnant corner of a burned rug was smoking at its fringe. Beside it lay the twisted body of Hamza’s son. The larger form of his wife lay sprawled on the floor, her mouth a rictus, belly ripped open and a tiny fetus still connected to her by the burned cord. They were charred nearly beyond recognition. Major Vati’s message to Hamza’s seditious colleagues had been delivered.
Hamza slowly went to his knees, head back and mouth open. A keening screech rose in pitch and intensity. He was alone. The call for afternoon prayers sounded from the nearby mosque, and the timeless cadence of Allah’s word slowly wormed its way around his voice, into his consciousness. Still on his knees, Hamza prostrated himself and prayed for revenge. Finally, he prayed for guidance.
Patriot and Assassin
Several years later
The afternoon shadows from the pool house stretched up the gravel path toward the huge, log-framed ranch house. Alex Cuchulain walked beside his friend, Brooks Elliot, talking idly about the travails of the economy and the housing bust. Both men seemed fit, light on their feet and balanced. Their T-shirts were wrinkled and newly dry, with damp circles at the waist of their swim trunks. Behind them walked two women, their dates. One was the owner’s daughter and their host, LuAnn Clemens. The second was Dr. Caitlin O’Connor. The hair on both was slicked back and still wet from the pool. Each carried a bath towel wrapped casually around her neck.
A sharp snap sounded just behind Alex. He turned his head just as a sharp pain hit the seat of his wet bathing suit, accompanied by another snap.
“Ow!” Alex yelled and turned to see LuAnn pulling her towel back, and Caitlin’s towel snapped just past him as she pulled back on its base. They were grinning and giggling.
As LuAnn snaked her damp towel out again at Alex, he snatched the end from the air just before it unraveled and gave it a pull. She sprawled forward and fell on the sharp gravel. She let out a loud yelp.
As Alex opened his mouth to apologize he heard a footfall behind him and immediately felt a slamming force just under his rib cage that drove him into the air. Eh? He felt himself reacting to thousands of hours of training. This happened to be Form Twenty-Eight of the repetitive martial arts drills the CIA had designed to counteract the seventy-two most common forms of physical attack. For each of those there was a physical response that was drilled, nearly endlessly, into workers who were chosen for the violent work of the Agency. As his mind turned to identify what other dangers lurked, reflex drove his response. Alex threw his legs uphill, using his stomach muscles and twisting his body over the force, drove his assailant under him as they fell. The part that took the longest to master was next: the impact of Alex’s fall must be broken, lessened somehow. His right arm was extended, slightly bent. As the impact of the man hitting the ground was first sensed, Alex drove his right elbow into the mass of the head and neck beneath him, accompanied by a loud exhalation, “Heeyaaa!”
The impact of that blow went through his assailant’s face to the dirt below. Bone could be heard snapping as the force of impact from Alex’s fall was countered. Judo used Newton’s law of motion that for every action there was an equal and opposite reaction. The slowing of his fall allowed his feet to continue to swing over the base of the conflict, then tighten the arc to hit tight to their landing spot. His upper body twisted along in the earlier arc of the feet, the arms of his assailant no longer grasping him tightly. Alex came to his feet in a balanced crouch, looking for an adversary. The flesh on his face was tight and bunching around his eyes. His breath was whistling loudly through his nostrils. Brooks had spun, back to the scene, and was standing with his knees flexed, one foot in front of the other in a crouch, hands raised, looking for others. There were none.
“What the hell was that?” Caitlin yelled, looking at the large cowboy still on the ground, inert. She looked at Alex, crouched and lethal. She thought of a big cat, some kind of nasty cat. His thighs were quivering, his head was up with nostrils flared, but there was no new threat. His lips were drawn back, exposing his incisors. The whole scene was erotic in its ferality, Caitlin thought; she had always been thrilled by violence.
Easy, laddie. It’s apparently over.
Jesus Annie, here I go again, Alex thought. He had just had a brief street fight with an amateur and here he was looking for someone to kill, to maim. As Brooks had once said, “Lose the Cooch look, if you can. It scares the civilians.” Still, that reflexive, preemptive hostility and readiness built over so many years had done Alex more good than harm. He was alive.
Alex dropped to one knee to reach for the man’s neck. He felt a strong pulse and noticed a shard of bone sticking from his jaw. A steady trickle of crimson flowed from the bone to the gravelly soil and was quickly absorbed.
“Darned if I know, Caitlin, but he appears to have hurt himself in the fall,” Alex said with a frown.
As Brooks helped LuAnn to her feet, he brushed the gravel from her. With a pounding of feet, three cowboys rushed around the maintenance shed. They skidded to a stop, and saw their friend, Jeeter, lying motionless on the ground, then looked at LuAnn, unsure what was going on.
“What the heck?” one of them yelled to LuAnn.
“I tripped and skinned my knee,” LuAnn said, pointing at her bloody kneecap. “Jeeter must have thought Alex here was acting up and tried to defend me. He missed the tackle, and there he is.”
After some confusion the ranch hands started to figure out how to move Jeeter. When they first saw the jawbone protruding from his face and blood dripping into the soil, there was some muttering among them and hostile glances at Cuchulain and Elliot, who stood with the women, watching. A ranch hand showed up with a canvas stretcher, and they began to move Jeeter to it.
LuAnn led her three guests toward the ranch house. On its porch, Virgil Clemens, her father, leaned against a tall wooden column with a wooden toothpick dancing at the right corner of his mouth. He watched them approach. As they got to the porch steps, she could see his upper lip twitching in what was Virgil’s idea of a grin.
“Hell, LuAnn, you just got here and there’s trouble already,” he said. “I’d better buy everyone a drink before things get out of hand. Cocktails start now and dinner is in ninety minutes. That should give you time for a few drinks and a change of clothes. I expect my foreman will fill me in on the details of the excitement before then.” Virgil waved his hand in the general direction of a wooden sideboard with wine and whiskey standing on it. There were pretzels and nuts in a big wooden bowl and a refrigerator beneath.
Alex and Caitlin each carried a glass of wine up the wide, wooden stairs and into their bedroom. Caitlin had a bowl of peanuts and popped a few into her mouth as she gazed at the room. She thought of it as upscale cowboy décor. The guest space was longer than wide, with bold Native American print cloth on the walls, and a random-width, planked oak floor with rugs scattered along it. The bath had a sliding paneled door and a floor tiled in alternate light and dark triangles. Beyond the dual sinks and mirrors, on the back wall of the bath, was a long, glass-enclosed shower. Nice shower, she thought. Now that could be interesting.
Caitlin turned to Alex with a frown as she walked to a desk and said, “Well, that was exciting. You could have killed that guy. That would have been a real vacation stopper for me.”
“For all of us, actually,” Alex said, shaking his head at her familiar self-absorption. “A two-inch miss would have put my elbow into his temple and lights out. I’m getting old and slow. I should have heard him coming.”
“It was pretty exciting,” Caitlin said. “It turned me on. I’d like to see it again, in slow motion, and watch your face. I don’t think you ever told me your whole sordid story, and something has been bugging me a bit. When you bailed me out of that biker club nightmare in New York awhile back, your face got really weird looking, like you were someone else, some evil, snaky creature. Today it happened again or at least it started. Do you have any idea what I’m talking about?”
“I do,” Alex said as he dropped into one of the leather-upholstered chairs. “Put your best credulity hat on; my story might strain it some. Believe it or not, there’s an ancient Irishman named Dain who lives inside my head. It’s something that drove the CIA psychiatrists crazy when they figured out that I didn’t manifest symptoms of schizophrenia other than believing in Dain. When there is a lot of danger coming at me from something or other, this Dain personality comes out in me and as part of him showing up, my face changes. My respiration ramps way up and becomes loud breathing. Dain manages the fighting; I do the fighting. I’m an invited guest with an almost slow-motion view of the action because I’ve done all the moves so often that thought would slow me down. My father said he hosted Dain, as did his father before him. This visitor, this avatar, this fantasy perhaps, whatever he is, has allegedly been in my family for centuries. Today there wasn’t enough time for him to take over completely and there was no real danger. I doubt if you’ll see him again, since I’m mostly out of the danger business. Still, if my face starts to change like that and you hear wind whistling through my nose, get on the floor. Cover your head. It’s going to be ugly.”
“Yes indeed, I’ve seen your ugly. I didn’t know the CIA had shrinks. Wow. Waste of money?”
“You’d have to ask my old boss, MacMillan,” he said. “He likes you and may admit to something, a rarity for him. Sometimes he reminds me of Yoda; Mac’s seen it all and remembers, and he thinks about it. But I don’t think Mac is Yoda; his ears are too small. Anyway, I met with Barry the Shrink, the CIA resident psychiatrist at the CIA’s Farm in Virginia, almost every day I was in town from the time I was seventeen until I left the CIA spec ops unit eight years later. All of our guys talked to him about the killing and the danger, but I was Barry’s special project. I started so young that he was fascinated at the way I developed, the way I handled and rationalized the danger, the violence, the killing. He gave me drugs to mitigate the stress, but I wouldn’t take them. He was glad, I think. His little project and observation would otherwise been masked by chemicals and an uncontrollable variable. Barry wanted to publish a paper, but Mac wouldn’t let him. When Mac didn’t want people to do something down there at the Farm, they didn’t do it.”
Caitlin gazed at him from over the rim of her glass, took another sip of wine, and said, “And how did you happen to become, and I quote from times past, ‘the baddest motherfucker in the whole world?’”
Alex gazed at her for a few moments, then grinned like a teenager. Caitlin liked that grin; it often came out when things were about to be fun. One of their first dates several years before had been in New York. Alex made a stop at the men’s room as he and Caitlin were leaving a lower Manhattan biker bar named Choppers. Caitlin had been abducted at the front entrance. She was rushed to a biker club in lower Manhattan to be the evening’s entertainment, followed by the ingestion of a few pills that would make her a bad witness if the police made things tiresome. By the time Alex figured out where they had taken her and got there, he was late. In the club, where he was decidedly not welcome, .Alex found himself faced by twenty or so bikers and their leader.
They had Caitlin. Her blouse had been ripped open and her breasts were exposed. She was being held in a chair by two large men. A small man near the door had a look of balance and athleticism that Alex recognized. A closer look revealed the edge of a tattoo on his left forearm. Its edge showed lines similar to the official Budweiser beer logo, which shows a similar image. It has the spread wings of an eagle at its top, over an old, vertical anchor; a flintlock pistol and a trident are crossed over the anchor. The tattoo was the logo of the Navy Seals. After a few quick words between them, the smaller man, named Dodd, said loudly to the others, “Listen up. I know about this guy. A lot of Seals think he is the baddest motherfucker in the whole world…” Dodd’s comments were mostly ignored by the others. They watched Caitlin and waited.
Violence ensued, then Alex left with Caitlin; the gang leader was writhing on the floor holding his crotch. Two large men bled from their faces onto a wooden picnic table at the rear of the room, holding their mangled hands. Alex had the leader’s gun and an eerie, serpentine cast to his face. The rest were quiet; the sound of wind whistling through his nose was loud.
Alex chuckled quietly.
“I had forgotten about Dodd saying that back in that biker club, but he probably believed it. I nurtured that image for awhile. My specialty was in explosives. I became the go-to guy at the CIA for combat explosives, so I often got assigned to accompany Seals and Delta Force on missions that needed complex demolition support. Once I showed I was good at blowing stuff up and an unhesitant killer, they nurtured me. In CIA spec ops, nurturing consisted of teaching me things that would keep me alive longer so I could keep on going out and killing people, and making sure I had any training I needed to make me a better boomer or more of a survivor. That’s what I was, the CIA’s boomer and a survivor. Mac was a friend of my father, so he sort of took me under his wing and mentored me.”
“Well, boomer, I’m going to get out of these damp clothes and dress for dinner,” Caitlin said. “I have some business ideas I want to flesh out before we go down there.” She walked to the closet and picked out some clothes, then stepped into the bathroom.
Alex pulled on a pair of jeans and a dry T-shirt. He reached into his traveling bag and took out a black, pocket-novel-sized device and a small cloth bag. He sat with one leg thrown over the arm of a soft chair that was covered in a black and white steer hide. He brought up the day’s Financial Times on his Kindle Fire and set it on his lap. He opened the cloth bag and brought out a device that had five vertical valve springs from an old truck held with narrow plates welded on them, top and bottom. A nylon cord loosely connected them. He put the bottom in his palm and casually squeezed one spring after the other, then again, as he read. The stuffed head of an eight-point elk glared down at him from the wall, seemingly irritated by the rhythmic squeaks from the springs.
Thirty minutes later Caitlin walked from the bath fully dressed, her short hair again damp. “All yours, cowboy,” she said.
Caitlin dropped into a thick-legged log chair in front of the desk in their guest room, back straight, leaning forward and looking at her computer screen. Her cell phone was just beside it. Nearly immediately, the clicking of the keys on her laptop was a soft blur of sound. Alex took his clothes from the closet and walked into the bath.
Later, Caitlin finished her typing with a flourish and stood, then reached for her wine glass and scooped out a handful of peanuts from a ceramic bowl beside it.
“I guess we should go down to dinner soon,” she said. “I wonder if this will be a big bore.”
“I suppose it depends on how curious Virgil is,” Alex said. “LuAnn is clever enough. Did you finish what you were working on?”
“Yeah, as much as I finish anything like this. I got one whole thought down and structured.”
Alex tilted his head and drained his wine glass. “So, let’s go see what we have, now that I’ve beaten up on one of Virgil’s hands,” he said. Caitlin wore gray cotton slacks and a light blue western shirt with an embroidered pattern on it, showing cute cattle at play. It occurred to Alex that the shirt was not really Caitlin, but maybe the store hadn’t sold bullfight shirts.
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