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Today’s Thriller of The Day is ripped straight from today’s headlines…
How does the U.S. government prevent Iran from deploying nuclear weapons that are likely to destroy Israel? Put Cooch on the job!
Pulse: The third of the Cooch adventures in national security by Robert Cook

Don’t miss today’s KND Thriller of the Day

Pulse: The third of the Cooch adventures in national security (The Cooch series of national security thrillers Book 3)

by Robert Cook

Pulse: The third of the Cooch adventures in national security (The Cooch series of national security thrillers Book 3)
4.4 stars – 117 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

What about Iran??

Pulse, a national security thriller, by Robert Cook

Pulse describes the complex process of preventing Iran from deploying nuclear weapons that are likely to destroy Israel, destabilize the Middle East and threaten world peace.

Pulse opens in Morocco, passes to Washington at the White House and then Camp David, passes again through Morocco and ends in Tehran. The interwoven back story is about how to bring the transformational lessons of the Enlightenment to the Middle East, with inexpensive, technology-enabled, mass education as the catalyst.

Pulse is a -thriller for the thoughtful reader. The lessons and arguments for and against the morality of war in a societal context are from some of history’s great minds.

The protagonist, Alejandro Muhammad Cuchulain (Cooch), is a former US Marine who served on the CIA Special Operations team for eight years. He is a purveyor of violence and of Islamic philosophy gained from studies at the College of Oriental Studies at Oxford. He is also a successful Middle Eastern businessman. Cooch is the leader of a team of five. Cooch’s best friend is preppie, former Navy Seal and Rhodes Scholar, Brooks F. T. Elliot IV, a student of the Enlightenment. Dr. Caitlin O’Connor, is a CalTech trained computational physicist with an enormous ego and larger intellect who has developed a software product that crunches huge amounts of Big Data to infer conclusions from it, to the delight of both the National Security Agency and every-day students across societies. Jerome Masterson is Alex’s long time CIA Special Ops partner; he is a student of institutional violence and it s application. Mac MacMillan is on the staff of the White House National Security Advisor and is an enabler. They ebb and flow around Cooch.

Iran plans to deploy soon a nuclear weapon to deliver Zionist-occupied Palestine back to its historic owners and enslave current residents. Israel abhors that idea, and plans to attack Iran without US permission.

The President seeks desperately to find a way to contain nuclear proliferation without again putting US troops in ground combat in the Middle East. His chief of staff and the Secretary of State are skeptical of proposals, and articulate in their opposition.

The US decides to instigate a civil war in Iran with few US boots on the ground. The full military hegemonic might of the US will be employed to support the chosen side of the Iranian conflict.

Cooch travels to Iran to facilitate identifying and convincing a group of Iranians to lead the insurrection against Iran’s radical Shiite leadership. His reputation as the leading Islamic scholar on the violent Sunni/Shiite schism allows him entry into Tehran.

The US attack on Iran opens with a display of military might and prowess designed to free the Straits of Hormuz for the flow of the world’s oil. Iran’s Russian backed navy and its huge fleet of small, armed boats and minelayers threaten both the US fleet and the world’s oil supply. New weapons cause US casualties and threaten the offensive.

Farther north, Iran’s uranium enrichment sites at Fordo and Natanz are destroyed. In the first few minutes of the US attack, Iran’s telecommunications infrastructure is destroyed with a new electromagnetic pulse weapon that fries silicon and copper wires and thus brings the internet and every electric powered device in range to a halt, destroyed forever. The radical Shiite leadership in the holy city of Qom is incinerated with their internet, television and radio center.

Click here to visit Robert Cook’s Amazon author page

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KND Freebies: National security thriller PATRIOT & ASSASSIN by Robert Cook is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

Start with a boiling cauldron of passion and violence. Sprinkle with strong dialog and wit. 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.  Stir vigorously, and you get Patriot & Assassin — tomorrow’s headlines today.
4.0 stars – 25 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

The second in the Alejandro “Cooch” Cuchulain series of national security techno-thrillers

Special ops agent Cooch finds himself 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.

Patriot and Assassin incorporates strong character development and powerful, thoughtful dialogue to drive this politico-thriller at a breakneck pace.

Praise for Patriot & Assassin:

“Page-turning thrill of a read…An excellent read that is often so close to reality that it spooks me.”

“Cooch’s best skill is turning an eight hour flight into 30 minutes!…I love how easy it is to escape into the characters and action, while appreciating the nuggets of culture, geo-politics and technology that are scattered throughout the story…”

an excerpt from

Patriot and Assassin

by Robert Cook

Southwest Texas

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.

Southwest Texas

Dawn, the Clemens’ ranch

Cuchulain walked from the ranch house with the ochre light of dawn casting long shadows across the rough grass toward the main corral. He wore a faded pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue cotton button-down shirt. His still-wet hair was slicked back, black and shining, with a few threads of silver showing on the sides. A middle-aged man was sitting on the top rail of the corral, smoking a cigarette, one foot hooked under the second rail. His wide-brimmed hat was pushed back on his head and a steel-gray brush cut showed beneath it. A large rectangular silver belt buckle on his jeans caught an early ray of sun. There was lettering of some sort on it.

“Howdy,” he said, and jumped down from the rail. He stuck his hand out. “I’m the foreman around here.”

“Hello,” Alex said as he reached with his hand to greet him. “How is the cowboy who fell yesterday? Jeeter?”

Cuchulain’s hand was suddenly squeezed hard, and Alex instinctively returned the pressure. He could feel thick calluses against his as the pressure increased. The man was strong. The pressure leveled, then dropped as the foreman gazed into Alex’s eyes; then he nodded almost imperceptibly and let go. He jumped nimbly back up on the rail.

“Well, his jaw hinge is shattered and the jaw’s broken in one place,” the foreman said, as he settled himself. “But I reckon he’ll live.” He flicked his cigarette to the dirt. “How do you pronounce that last name of yours?”

“Coo-HULL-an,” Alex said. “Why?”

He studied Cuchulain. “They ever call you Cooch?”

Alex shrugged. “Seems likely with a name like mine.”

“I was in the marine corps for twenty-some years. Word gets around. You that Cooch? The one who worked for the spooks?”

Alex sighed. “I’d rather not make a fuss about it. That was a long time ago. I’m a businessman now.”

“I figgered. I’ve broken hands with less pressure than that. My name’s Proctor Mikey. They call me Mikey. Took me awhile to figger you out. Then I remembered that your buddy Elliot was a Seal; the boys was all excited about that. They thought maybe they’d have a fight in his honor.”

“It’s not too late,” Alex said.

Mikey dug a small sack from his shirt pocket, unfolded a paper from a small orange packet, and began to roll another cigarette. “I never got to meet your daddy. Never met a man with the Medal of Honor. Wished I had.”

Alex looked at the dawning sky for a long moment and said, “He was a good man.”

“The boys sort of gave up on the fight in Elliot’s honor. They figure you fucked up the ranch’s honor when Jeeter got hurt going after you. Jeeter’s jaw’s wired shut, but he wrote a note at the infirmary. It just said, ‘Protectin LuAnn.’ They’re planning to work on you some. We call it ‘riding for the brand,'” Mikey said quietly. “They like that LuAnn girl.”

“Hell, I like her too. It was an accident, or at least not what it seemed,” Alex said as he sighed and looked away. “Well, does recovering honor for the brand include guns and knives? If not, Elliot and I will deal with it. But you’d better call around and get some more folks for your side. If that guy who jumped me was one of the bad guys, you don’t have nearly enough folks to make it fun.”

Mikey snorted a double laugh and then coughed violently. He hawked a wad of phlegm and spat it on the dirt.

“I reckon the boss would be highly pissed if he had a bunch of hands in the hospital or the hoosegow,” he said. “Anyhow, they’re fixin’ to have you ride a horse that will do the job for them. You ride much?”

“Only a little,” Alex said. “I’ve ridden more camels than horses.”

“We got us a big horse named Cottonmouth. Good name. He’s meaner than a blind fucking snake. They got him in mind for you, for a bumpy little ride across the prairie. And Cottonmouth’s a biter.”

“Hell, the fight’s sounding better all the time. Any advice?”

Mikey sat for awhile, pondering. “My claim to fame around here is that I was national high school rodeo champ a thousand years ago,” he said, and pointed to his belt buckle. “I know horses.”

“And?” Alex said.

“Two things,” Mikey said. “First, if you punch a horse really hard just between his ears, high up, and you can punch right, he’ll go to his knees. Maybe a trained guy like you would kill him, but he’ll behave if you don’t. Second, and sneakier, but you may be able to pull it off if the rumors about your hands are true, and I just seen some evidence that they might be: you just whisper a bit in Cottonmouth’s ear while they are holding him and run your hand up just between his ears and press hard. The place is called the poll; it’s where nerves cross under a horse’s skull plates. The plates don’t quite meet there and there’s a little dip, so there’s room to push a strong finger down in. Horses don’t like pain; it makes them behave.”

“Good to know, I guess,” Alex said. “I don’t suppose you could show me how to do that on a horse.”

Mikey smiled. “I reckon I could, both of us being marines and all. It’s the least I can do to stop a massacree on my ranch.” He eased himself from the rail, stripped the paper from the remaining tobacco, and dropped it into the dirt. He ground it with his heel and walked toward the stables with Alex beside him.

Mikey stopped just as they reached a stable and turned. “I need to ask you something, but it’s really none of my biddness,” he said.

“Sure.” Alex shrugged and smiled. “Asking is free.”

“Do you have any contacts left? Where you can give someone a heads-up to see if something’s funny?”

“Funny, how?” Alex said. “Who would want to know?”

Mikey studied Alex. “There was a different crowd of Mexicans came to town about three, four days ago. Not like most of the coyotes that bring illegals across. They’re a bunch of bad asses, plus a guy who dresses funny and speaks bad Spanish. The locals are scared to death of them.”

“Yeah?” Alex said.

“Yeah. We get a pretty steady stream of illegals coming through this part of Texas. We’re on a good smuggling route from Mexico. It’s been going on for quite awhile, but it’s really none of our biddness, so we stay out of it. The immigration game changed with this crowd that just came in. One of my ranch hands, Gomez, is a former marine. He did his Iraq time, twice. He was in town when those guys came into the cantina. Gomez thinks that a funny-looking guy was speaking Arabic to one guy who translates to Spanish. The bad guys were pissed when they did it in public, but still treated them like royalty.

“So, if they’re bad asses, they’re too expensive to be moving illegals. What are they moving?” Mikey said. “It don’t smell right, and my nose works pretty good for smelling trouble. Gomez took a picture of the guy with his cell phone. Quality’s shitty, but it’s a picture.”

“Did he now? Well done,” Alex said with a tight smile. He dug out his wallet and found a slightly wrinkled business card to hand to Mikey. “Ask him to e-mail me a copy of that photo soon. It could be anything or nothing. Still, it’s a change in behavior for them, isn’t it?”

“Yup,” Mikey said. “And it might be worth looking into, or not. You know anyone to alert? Word was that you were doing spook work for awhile and were good at it. I thought there might be a loose connection or two you could tweak. Immigration is one thing, but they don’t need those guys for that. What worries me is what they are planning to bring across the border.”

“I’ll make a call,” Alex said. “Maybe someone will take a look. Are you available to talk a little more and maybe Gomez too? I might want to go to town to night after dark and get a beer with Gomez. Check things out.”

Mikey glanced up sharply and said, “Hell, we’re marines. You know that.”

“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been a civilian too long. Once a marine, always a marine. Semper fi.”

Mikey snorted, and said with a grin, “Fuckin-ay-tweedie-grunt.”

***

Breakfast was Texas big: eggs, blueberry pancakes, three kinds of toast, jalapeño cheese grits, home-fried potatoes, two kinds of fresh squeezed juice, and meat galore. When they finally pushed back from the table, Virgil said they should get ready for the day’s trail ride and meet at ten at the corral. On the stairs to their room, Alex quietly asked Caitlin to turn Emilie’s intelligence assessment loose on any West Texas/Arab connection and explained his plans.

LuAnn hurried to catch her father as the guests walked to their rooms.

“Daddy,” she said. “I need to talk to you, now!”

“Sure, honey,” he said. “Come on into my office and set a spell. Hell, I always have time for you. Since your mother passed, there ain’t no one else that matters.”

“Look, Daddy,” LuAnn said. “That thing by the pool where Jeeter got hurt was an accident and it was my fault. The hands are acting like our honor was violated, and I’m afraid Alex is in trouble with them somehow.”

“Honey, don’t you worry too much about that, but I’m glad to see that New Yawk hasn’t screwed up your powers of observation,” Virgil said. “I talked to Mikey a little while ago, and he said that it’s under control, mostly. If it gets out of hand, I’ll have him stop it.”

LuAnn shifted in her chair, looked out the window for a moment at the dry rolling hills, then said, “I really don’t like this, and I don’t know Alex well yet. His date is a barracuda with a foul mouth and an IQ in the stratosphere. If she gets to thinking this is about her somehow, things could get ugly. I like her, but she’s scary smart, tough, and it’s all about her. If she had a lobotomy, she’d make a good lawyer. But I think what they are doing is exciting. I think I want in.”

Clemens chuckled and stood up. “Best-looking barracuda I’ve ever seen. Well, let’s just see how it works out. Mikey thinks that your friend Alex is safe enough. As far as the rest of it goes, if you’re in, I’m in, at least sort of. Let’s just see how things play out.”

A little later, Alex sat in a wooden rocking chair on the broad veranda, uncomfortably wearing a brand new Stetson cowboy hat Caitlin had bought for him. He was nursing a white ceramic mug of coffee in one hand and had his Kphone in the other, reading messages. Caitlin came through the thick double door. She was dressed in skin-tight jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, and a white Stetson. Her high-heeled cowboy boots were hand-tooled black leather, with math symbols carved on them in white. She wiggled her behind and trilled, “Ta-da!”

Alex jumped up, spilling hot coffee on his hand.

As he stood, Brooks and LuAnn walked out the front door, followed by Virgil Clemens. All walked toward the corral, talking idly about breakfast, where four saddled horses waited, one with two ranch hands holding its bridle. Another very large saddled horse was standing by Mikey, looking at him as a favored Labrador retriever might.

Mikey walked over to the group and began to assign horses. Each guest moved to the assigned mount. LuAnn was beside Virgil while her horse stood waiting, patiently. Alex was last.

“Young feller,” Mikey said to Alex, “the boys picked this horse out special for you. They thought he’d be good transportation.”

“Daddy! Cottonmouth?” LuAnn whispered. “Stop it!”

“I’ll stop it later, if it gets nasty,” Clemens said quietly. “Right now, it’s just fun. Let’s see if Mikey is as good as I think he is.”

Alex walked to his horse and stood in front of the left stirrup, just behind his nose. They looked at each other. The horse started to turn his head, and his lips curled from flat, yellow teeth. Alex blocked Cottonmouth’s head from turning with his left forearm and stepped forward, sliding his right hand up and over his thick neck to his ears, then between them, probing. There was indeed a tiny gap between his skull plates. Alex slid a forefinger just above that gap and dug a little. Cottonmouth settled back, unsure. Alex leaned to whisper in his ear. “Look, horse, one of us is liable to get hurt here. I’d rather it was you.” He pushed down with his forefinger between the skull plates. Cottonmouth shifted a bit and Alex pushed harder. The horse became still and Alex eased the pressure slightly.

The cowboys holding the horse looked puzzled and at each other quizzically. This was not the Cottonmouth they knew. One of them said to Alex, “Why don’t you just stick your foot in this here stirrup and mount up, cowboy. Other folks are waiting for you.”

Alex stuck his left foot in the stirrup and swung up and over the horse. He felt the horse’s muscles bunching, ready to explode. He pushed much harder on Cottonmouth’s poll. The horse stilled immediately and Alex felt him beginning to weaken at the fore knees. He eased back on the finger pressure. Cottonmouth turned his head, eyes rolled back, awaiting instruction.

Mikey swung on his horse and snuck a wink at Alex.

“Let’s move out now, folks,” he said.

Alex moved the reins against Cottonmouth’s neck, then gave him a little kick. The horse moved obediently to the rear of the line. Alex took his hand from the top of Cottonmouth’s head after one reminder squeeze.

The horses moved at a brisk walk away from the corrals with the mid-morning sun casting a yellow glow on the field. The light put in sharp contrast the mechanical nodding of steel oil well donkeys, rhythmically pumping money from the ground.

One of the cowboys who had been holding Cottonmouth’s bridle said to the other, “He’s a daggone tenderfoot. How did he get onto Cottonmouth and just ride away like he was on a rental pony?”

“Beats me,” the second man, older, said. “It was spooky. He whispered in Cottonmouth’s ear and that was the end of the horse acting up. I never seen the like.”

“I’d sure like to know what the heck he said to that horse,” the younger man muttered.

West Texas

It was late afternoon when the riding party came ambling back to the Clemens ranch, horses close and their riders talking casually. Cottonmouth, with Alex aboard, seemed happy and placid while he walked beside LuAnn and her mount. As they entered the yard and turned to the corral, ranch hands came forward to take the horses and help the riders down from their perches. As Alex dismounted and turned to Caitlin, one of the hands, a young man, reached for Cottonmouth’s bridle. In a flash, Cottonmouth spun his head and knocked the man to the ground and then bared his teeth, reaching for him. Alex yelled, “Hey!” and Cottonmouth stopped as he felt Alex’s hand on the top of his head, pressing hard, then faced back to the front, again apparently placid. Alex stuck out his hand and helped the ranch hand to his feet, then brushed a little red dust from his shirt.

“Sorry about that, young fellow,” he said. “He’s sensitive. I whisper nice things to him. He likes that.” Two older hands stood, jaws agape at the horse’s change in behavior, then shook their heads. Just across the yard, Mikey relaxed on his horse with one leg thrown over the saddle horn, grinning and rolling a smoke.

Virgil leaned against a log pillar at the main house, in the shade, watching the four chatting casually, making their way to the house. When Alex and Caitlin came abreast of him, Virgil said, “Alex, could I have a word with you in private?”

“Sure thing, Virgil,” Alex said. “Caitlin, I’ll catch up with you at the bar in a minute.” Caitlin nodded over her shoulder as she walked inside.

Virgil stepped inside the house and said quietly, “I heard from Mikey that he told you about those nasty critters in the village. If there’s anything I can add to the picture to make a believer out of you, let me know. I’d like to make them go away.”

Alex smiled and said, “I e-mailed the photo that your man, Gomez, took in the cantina to a friend in DC this morning, along with a heads-up. I imagine someone is already looking into it. I may drop by there after dinner for a look.”

“Is this likely to be something where you or Elliot gets involved?” Virgil said. “Mikey said you were in that business for awhile. Elliot for sure was in the violence business.”

“We’re out of that business,” Alex said. “If there is something to be done, the pros will do it. Brooks and I are old and tired. We’d just get in the way, but if I hear that something went down, I’ll let you know.”

“Good. I’d rather not have any trouble here, but if it’s coming, I’d like to be ready.”

“I don’t think it will come to that,” Alex said. “You’re too far from the border. Still, I’ll keep my ears open. I’m heading back to DC tomorrow for a few days.”

“Thanks. Brooks and LuAnn are headed back to New York. Caitlin’s going with you, I think.”

“At least for a day or two,” Alex said. “Right now, I think it’s time for me to have a glass of wine.”

“Caitlin may be getting impatient,” Virgil said with a chuckle. “She’s not one that I’d keep waiting. Good information technology managers are hard to find.”

Caitlin handed Alex a glass of red wine as he reached the bar. She picked up a small bowl of peanuts and walked toward the stairs. He was a step behind.

                                 ****

Two hours later Mikey grinned as Alex and Elliot walked down the path from the ranch house to Mikey’s office and quarters beside the bunk house. “You’re a bit scruffy now, aren’t you, Mr. Cuchulain?” Alex was in a dark T-shirt with a bandana tied around his hair. Elliot was quiet beside him, with a dark shirt, dark pants, and dark-leather hiking boots.

Alex said, “Si, Chico.”

“You speak a little Spanish, do you?”

“Yeah, I do,” Alex said. “It’s a secret. All this shit is secret. I was never in the cantina with Gomez.”

“What do you want to wear?”

“I’ll wear my boots and my jeans. I’ll need an old open-necked shirt, an old worn hat, and a crucifix maybe, to give me luck.”

“Can do. One of Jeeter’s shirts will fit you; he doesn’t need them right now. The rest is easy. Listen, Gomez isn’t sure you can pass as a Latino. He’s nervous about it.”

Alex laughed. “Going into a cantina full of bad guys makes one nervous. Let’s get my clothes together, then Gomez and I will talk. You sit by. If he’s still nervous about me, maybe I go in alone.”

Mickey shrugged. “Gomez is a solid guy. It should be fine. It’s not like we have a sand table to plan this mission. It’s a sneak and peek.”

“It is, indeed. And that’s all it is. If trouble starts, I’ll start it.”

***

Later that evening, just after full darkness fell, Alex and Hector Gomez walked into a small cantina several miles closer to the Mexican border than the Clemens ranch. A quick, casual glance showed two small groups in the room, separated by a number of empty, cheap, wooden tables with flimsy chairs at them. On one side of the room were six men, most dressed in casual clothing. Two of them, with scruffy beards, were seated in the center of the group, dressed a little differently, with coffee mugs in front of them. Two others, who were younger and lean, drank beer from bottles.  A very large man sat beside an older Mexican, who seemed by his body language to be in charge.

Alex and Gomez found a table at the edge of the other group, made up of a few locals. As they sat, Gomez studied Alex. If he hadn’t seen him as part of the Clemens riding party, Gomez would have guessed he was a dangerous Mexican, someone to avoid. His Spanish was fluent and now colloquial, with a vague Mexican accent. Alex had done something to darken his face a little and the scars on his face stood out in white. There were many tiny scars on his forehead and the old furrow of a knife scar slid down his left cheek through thick wrinkles around his eye. The wrinkles were beside both eyes and seemed to bunch up in a hood beside them. He wore an old blue denim shirt, tight across the chest, with the sleeves rolled to the elbow and three buttons open at the neck to reveal a thick thatch of black chest hair with an ornate crucifix on a gold chain hanging amidst it. His forearms were huge and tracked with distended veins. Alex had large, lumpy, battered hands.

Gomez could hear Alex breathing fairly heavily through his nose. This is so fucking exciting! Alex said call him Cooch before we left. His Spanish started as pure, upscale Castilian. He listened to me, then asked questions, then listened carefully again. After twenty minutes or so, Cooch said, “I think this language is close enough.” He started talking in an accent that sounded like he was Mexican, from somewhere. For Mexicans that spend a lot of time out of the country, their accents get blurred. Cooch nailed the accent. Who the hell is this guy? Mikey seems to think he walks on water.

A man brought two beers to them, and then spoke to Gomez.

“So, Hector,” he said. “Welcome back. Who’s your big friend? It’s always nice to see a new face.”

“A distant cousin from Baja California, Pedro,” Gomez said. “We were childhood playmates. This is Alejandro. He’s on his way east and stopped in for the evening. We decided to have a beer.”

Pedro stuck out his hand, and Alex took it, standing. He loomed.

“Hola,” Alex said, as he glanced across the room. Everyone in the room was looking at him, the newcomer. Across the room, the older Mexican studied him carefully.

Alex sat down as the bartender walked away and said to Hector, “These are bad guys. I know one of them, so we got what we came for. Let’s finish our beer and get out of here.”

Gomez nodded and tilted his bottle to his lips. He took two big gulps and put it down.

Alex tilted his bottle and took a sip, watching the leader in his peripheral vision. After a few moments, the older man turned and leaned to the large man beside him. He spoke a few words.

The man set his bottle on the floor and stood. He was wide, with no discernible waist. His hair was dirty, pulled back and held with a rubber band. He hitched his pants and began to approach their table, rolling a little as he walked. There was a confident grin on his face.

When he reached the table, Alex stood up from his chair.

“I am Gordo,” he said, belly bumped Alex back into his chair, and smiled. Gordo had a gold rim around one of his front teeth and there was an incisor missing on the left. Alex reached to Gordo’s elbow to catch himself as he was bumped, and again came to his feet, his index finger digging hard into the little elbow hollow where the funny bone is.

“Ngggh!” Gordo grunted. The surprise of the sharp electric pain immobilized him for a moment.

Alex turned the big man to his left after another deep squeeze into the elbow and brought his left hand to grasp Gordo’s neck. His fingers reached under each ear to the point where the soft mastoid bones are most exposed. He squeezed hard with his thumb on one side and two fingers on the other side of the neck and felt the bones there yield slightly to his grip. The man was still, quivering from the pain.

“Senor,” Cooch said to the older Mexican. “Your colleague is impolite. Is there a reason we should be adversaries?”

“Why are you here?” the man asked. He watched curiously as his messenger stood silent. It was out of character for Gordo to be passive.

“I am here to have a beer with my cousin before continuing my journey to the east. I have no reason other than that to be here. Have we met?”

“We have not, but you don’t fit in here.”

“We don’t, it seems. We’re happy to leave. A noisy altercation might draw the attention of the gringo police. I cannot afford that.”

There was a long silence. “Neither, I suppose, can I afford that. But there are just two of you. We could easily kill you and hide your bodies. We plan to be here only a few more days.”

“There are six of you and five of us,” Alex said. “There may be no one left to dig the graves. And there is no profit in it for you or for me. You will be the first to die; your colleague beside me will be the second. I will likely be the third. It may be better if we just leave now.”

“I think you are lying to me, senor. I see but two of you. The man of mine beside you appears to be useless as an enforcer. So kill him now as a gesture that you are not from the police, then convince me there are more of you. Do you need a knife? Your time is short.”

***

On the drive to the cantina from the Clemens’ ranch, Brooks had been in the passenger seat beside Proctor Mikey. Alex and Hector Gomez sat in the back seat of Mikey’s Crew Cab F250 Ford pickup truck. It was the off-road model, painted a deep red, with big tires and four-wheel drive.

“Nice truck!” Alex had said.

Mikey smiled. “I call her BART, my big-ass red truck. I spend my money on trucks and rifles. I sell a little venison and some boar that I shoot. Since my old lady dumped me ten years ago, life’s been pretty good.”

“OK, let’s keep life good,” Brooks had said. “Here’s the way we do these things, and this is all classified, so no bragging rights back at the ranch. Cooch and Hector will find a table that we can see, that is not in our line of fire, but in our vision. We’ll zero in on the leader, if he is obvious. Cooch will look directly at him when he is standing.

“If it is going to get nasty, Cooch will point at something, like the edge of the bar or a vertical timber. There will be a knife sticking out of it. Shoot the knife at the center of the blade. If he points again, shoot a bottle. If he points at someone, shoot him dead. Then work from right to left and shoot anyone who produces a gun. One shot each. I’ll put the two guys in the corner down and work left to right. At first, I’ll avoid killing anyone who looks like an Arab, because we might want to talk to them. Hector, do not stand up after you sit down. If you have to shoot, drop and shoot from a kneeling position.”

Mikey had grinned. “Fucking Seals,” he said. “You don’t leave much to chance.”

“It sounds like you’ve been there, Mikey,” Brooks had said. “With bad guys we try to leave nothing to chance, but we still manage to get a few buddies killed, from time to time. I’d like to avoid that here.”

“Yeah,” Mikey had said. “I don’t disagree. It’s just nice to work with the A team.”

Cooch and Hector had been dropped short of the cantina, to walk the last fifty yards. Mikey had planned a spot to stop and Gomez had made a rough sketch of the interior of the cantina. The F250 moved quietly past the cantina, then switched off its lights and turned left onto a dirt road that curved back toward the way they had come. Mikey had night-vision goggles pulled down. In a short time, the cantina was visible from the driver’s window and Mikey had turned the truck with its hood away from the open window. The two men got out and lowered the tailgate, then crawled up on the bed of the pickup. Two thick mattress pads were laid out with several small sandbags of dull black nylon stacked at their sides.

Mikey opened a long box mounted against the side wall and picked up a bolt action Remington Model 700 rifle chambered in .308, with a Swarovski Z6i three to eighteen power scope mounted. He had a Leupold range finder dangling from his neck. He reached again and handed Brooks an old M14 semi-automatic rifle that showed signs of loving, professional care. It had a tactical scope mounted. Next came two loaded magazines for it. Mikey had reached again and came out with a small handful of cartridges. He opened the .308’s bolt and began to push them, one at a time, into the ammunition well of his rifle.

“It’s eighty-seven meters to Cooch. Your M14 is zeroed at one hundred yards with 140 grain Nosler bullets. What are we looking at here?” Mikey said a few moments later, as he looked through his range finder.

Elliot looked through his tactical scope, and said, “We can’t see into one corner of the room. I’m going to go twenty-five yards west and find a new spot with a better view. In the meantime, shoot where the man points. Nice M14, by the way. I love this rifle.”

Mikey reached again into the box, brought out two Motorola two-way radios, set the channels, and handed one to Brooks. Brooks dropped it into his shirt pocket and slid to the ground from the extended gate of the truck. He pulled his night-vision goggles down over his eyes. They were not the Generation Four goggles the Seals used, but Generation Two was good enough to see his way on a partially moonlit night.

***

Cooch reached with his right hand to Gordo’s chin and released his left to hold the palm along his jaw line. Just as Gordo started to move, Cooch gave a hard, twisting snap with his right hand as he held the neckline from yielding with his left. There was a sound like a dry branch cracking. As the man crumpled to the floor, Cooch dropped his right hand behind his neck and in one motion threw a knife from a scabbard that hung there. It stuck, quivering, in a vertical wooden roof support beside the Mexican boss.

“I don’t need a knife to kill him,” Cooch said. “He’s dead. There are now five of you. I could have made it four, but thought I would use the knife as a demonstration of your risk. As I said, I would rather not have noisy trouble.”

“Do you have more than one knife, senor, or is that danger gone with your showmanship? What now? I’ve seen no evidence that there are more of you than I see.”

Cooch pointed at the knife. It disappeared with a loud spang; the sound of a nearby shot followed closely through the open window.

“Now you have evidence,” Cooch said. “May we now leave in peace?”

“You have murdered one of my men.”

Cooch sighed loudly. “He was killed only at your request, senor. He wasn’t much. I imagine he’d have died soon anyway if you are in the violence business. But I suspect violence is just a byproduct of something else you do.”

“You know of the violence business?”

“We are in the violence business, senor. All we do is to sell violence and its enabling tools. It’s usually a good business, but this evening is about to be bad for business. We aren’t getting paid.”

“You may leave, but I will remember you. I hope to kill you slowly someday.”

“And I you, senor,” Cooch said. He pointed at the bar. A bottle broke. He reached in his pocket, pulled a roll of bills from it, and dropped several on the table, then turned his back and walked to the door with Hector close behind, a 9mm Sig Sauer Model 229 pistol dangling from Hector’s shaking hand and a huge grin on his face.

… Continued…

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Patriot & Assassin

by Robert Cook
15 rave reviews!
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PATRIOT & ASSASSIN is one of just seven books — and the only work of fiction — to make it to Bill Gates’ summer reading list!
In addition to providing millions of hours of great reading for our subscribers, Author Robert Cook has sponsored fun sweepstakes like the Kindle Fire giveaway for our fans. So we were very happy for Bob when we noted that this very contemporary page turner turned up on Gates’ summer reading short list.
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Here’s the set-up:
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, and you get Patriot & Assassin — tomorrow’s headlines today.

Praise for Patriot & Assassin:

“Page-turning thrill of a read…An excellent read that is often so close to reality that it spooks me.”
“If you like the suspense in Tess Gerritsen’s novels and the political strategies in Stuart Woods’ Will Lee series, you’ll love Cook’s Patriot and Assassin. The story line is so current it could headline tomorrow’s news…a real thriller!”

an excerpt from

Patriot and Assassin

by Robert Cook

Southwest Texas

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.

Southwest Texas

Dawn, the Clemens’ ranch

Cuchulain walked from the ranch house with the ochre light of dawn casting long shadows across the rough grass toward the main corral. He wore a faded pair of Wrangler jeans and a blue cotton button-down shirt. His still-wet hair was slicked back, black and shining, with a few threads of silver showing on the sides. A middle-aged man was sitting on the top rail of the corral, smoking a cigarette, one foot hooked under the second rail. His wide-brimmed hat was pushed back on his head and a steel-gray brush cut showed beneath it. A large rectangular silver belt buckle on his jeans caught an early ray of sun. There was lettering of some sort on it.

“Howdy,” he said, and jumped down from the rail. He stuck his hand out. “I’m the foreman around here.”

“Hello,” Alex said as he reached with his hand to greet him. “How is the cowboy who fell yesterday? Jeeter?”

Cuchulain’s hand was suddenly squeezed hard, and Alex instinctively returned the pressure. He could feel thick calluses against his as the pressure increased. The man was strong. The pressure leveled, then dropped as the foreman gazed into Alex’s eyes; then he nodded almost imperceptibly and let go. He jumped nimbly back up on the rail.

“Well, his jaw hinge is shattered and the jaw’s broken in one place,” the foreman said, as he settled himself. “But I reckon he’ll live.” He flicked his cigarette to the dirt. “How do you pronounce that last name of yours?”

“Coo-HULL-an,” Alex said. “Why?”

He studied Cuchulain. “They ever call you Cooch?”

Alex shrugged. “Seems likely with a name like mine.”

“I was in the marine corps for twenty-some years. Word gets around. You that Cooch? The one who worked for the spooks?”

Alex sighed. “I’d rather not make a fuss about it. That was a long time ago. I’m a businessman now.”

“I figgered. I’ve broken hands with less pressure than that. My name’s Proctor Mikey. They call me Mikey. Took me awhile to figger you out. Then I remembered that your buddy Elliot was a Seal; the boys was all excited about that. They thought maybe they’d have a fight in his honor.”

“It’s not too late,” Alex said.

Mikey dug a small sack from his shirt pocket, unfolded a paper from a small orange packet, and began to roll another cigarette. “I never got to meet your daddy. Never met a man with the Medal of Honor. Wished I had.”

Alex looked at the dawning sky for a long moment and said, “He was a good man.”

“The boys sort of gave up on the fight in Elliot’s honor. They figure you fucked up the ranch’s honor when Jeeter got hurt going after you. Jeeter’s jaw’s wired shut, but he wrote a note at the infirmary. It just said, ‘Protectin LuAnn.’ They’re planning to work on you some. We call it ‘riding for the brand,'” Mikey said quietly. “They like that LuAnn girl.”

“Hell, I like her too. It was an accident, or at least not what it seemed,” Alex said as he sighed and looked away. “Well, does recovering honor for the brand include guns and knives? If not, Elliot and I will deal with it. But you’d better call around and get some more folks for your side. If that guy who jumped me was one of the bad guys, you don’t have nearly enough folks to make it fun.”

Mikey snorted a double laugh and then coughed violently. He hawked a wad of phlegm and spat it on the dirt.

“I reckon the boss would be highly pissed if he had a bunch of hands in the hospital or the hoosegow,” he said. “Anyhow, they’re fixin’ to have you ride a horse that will do the job for them. You ride much?”

“Only a little,” Alex said. “I’ve ridden more camels than horses.”

“We got us a big horse named Cottonmouth. Good name. He’s meaner than a blind fucking snake. They got him in mind for you, for a bumpy little ride across the prairie. And Cottonmouth’s a biter.”

“Hell, the fight’s sounding better all the time. Any advice?”

Mikey sat for awhile, pondering. “My claim to fame around here is that I was national high school rodeo champ a thousand years ago,” he said, and pointed to his belt buckle. “I know horses.”

“And?” Alex said.

“Two things,” Mikey said. “First, if you punch a horse really hard just between his ears, high up, and you can punch right, he’ll go to his knees. Maybe a trained guy like you would kill him, but he’ll behave if you don’t. Second, and sneakier, but you may be able to pull it off if the rumors about your hands are true, and I just seen some evidence that they might be: you just whisper a bit in Cottonmouth’s ear while they are holding him and run your hand up just between his ears and press hard. The place is called the poll; it’s where nerves cross under a horse’s skull plates. The plates don’t quite meet there and there’s a little dip, so there’s room to push a strong finger down in. Horses don’t like pain; it makes them behave.”

“Good to know, I guess,” Alex said. “I don’t suppose you could show me how to do that on a horse.”

Mikey smiled. “I reckon I could, both of us being marines and all. It’s the least I can do to stop a massacree on my ranch.” He eased himself from the rail, stripped the paper from the remaining tobacco, and dropped it into the dirt. He ground it with his heel and walked toward the stables with Alex beside him.

Mikey stopped just as they reached a stable and turned. “I need to ask you something, but it’s really none of my biddness,” he said.

“Sure.” Alex shrugged and smiled. “Asking is free.”

“Do you have any contacts left? Where you can give someone a heads-up to see if something’s funny?”

“Funny, how?” Alex said. “Who would want to know?”

Mikey studied Alex. “There was a different crowd of Mexicans came to town about three, four days ago. Not like most of the coyotes that bring illegals across. They’re a bunch of bad asses, plus a guy who dresses funny and speaks bad Spanish. The locals are scared to death of them.”

“Yeah?” Alex said.

“Yeah. We get a pretty steady stream of illegals coming through this part of Texas. We’re on a good smuggling route from Mexico. It’s been going on for quite awhile, but it’s really none of our biddness, so we stay out of it. The immigration game changed with this crowd that just came in. One of my ranch hands, Gomez, is a former marine. He did his Iraq time, twice. He was in town when those guys came into the cantina. Gomez thinks that a funny-looking guy was speaking Arabic to one guy who translates to Spanish. The bad guys were pissed when they did it in public, but still treated them like royalty.

“So, if they’re bad asses, they’re too expensive to be moving illegals. What are they moving?” Mikey said. “It don’t smell right, and my nose works pretty good for smelling trouble. Gomez took a picture of the guy with his cell phone. Quality’s shitty, but it’s a picture.”

“Did he now? Well done,” Alex said with a tight smile. He dug out his wallet and found a slightly wrinkled business card to hand to Mikey. “Ask him to e-mail me a copy of that photo soon. It could be anything or nothing. Still, it’s a change in behavior for them, isn’t it?”

“Yup,” Mikey said. “And it might be worth looking into, or not. You know anyone to alert? Word was that you were doing spook work for awhile and were good at it. I thought there might be a loose connection or two you could tweak. Immigration is one thing, but they don’t need those guys for that. What worries me is what they are planning to bring across the border.”

“I’ll make a call,” Alex said. “Maybe someone will take a look. Are you available to talk a little more and maybe Gomez too? I might want to go to town to night after dark and get a beer with Gomez. Check things out.”

Mikey glanced up sharply and said, “Hell, we’re marines. You know that.”

“Yeah, sorry. I’ve been a civilian too long. Once a marine, always a marine. Semper fi.”

Mikey snorted, and said with a grin, “Fuckin-ay-tweedie-grunt.”

***

Breakfast was Texas big: eggs, blueberry pancakes, three kinds of toast, jalapeño cheese grits, home-fried potatoes, two kinds of fresh squeezed juice, and meat galore. When they finally pushed back from the table, Virgil said they should get ready for the day’s trail ride and meet at ten at the corral. On the stairs to their room, Alex quietly asked Caitlin to turn Emilie’s intelligence assessment loose on any West Texas/Arab connection and explained his plans.

LuAnn hurried to catch her father as the guests walked to their rooms.

“Daddy,” she said. “I need to talk to you, now!”

“Sure, honey,” he said. “Come on into my office and set a spell. Hell, I always have time for you. Since your mother passed, there ain’t no one else that matters.”

“Look, Daddy,” LuAnn said. “That thing by the pool where Jeeter got hurt was an accident and it was my fault. The hands are acting like our honor was violated, and I’m afraid Alex is in trouble with them somehow.”

“Honey, don’t you worry too much about that, but I’m glad to see that New Yawk hasn’t screwed up your powers of observation,” Virgil said. “I talked to Mikey a little while ago, and he said that it’s under control, mostly. If it gets out of hand, I’ll have him stop it.”

LuAnn shifted in her chair, looked out the window for a moment at the dry rolling hills, then said, “I really don’t like this, and I don’t know Alex well yet. His date is a barracuda with a foul mouth and an IQ in the stratosphere. If she gets to thinking this is about her somehow, things could get ugly. I like her, but she’s scary smart, tough, and it’s all about her. If she had a lobotomy, she’d make a good lawyer. But I think what they are doing is exciting. I think I want in.”

Clemens chuckled and stood up. “Best-looking barracuda I’ve ever seen. Well, let’s just see how it works out. Mikey thinks that your friend Alex is safe enough. As far as the rest of it goes, if you’re in, I’m in, at least sort of. Let’s just see how things play out.”

A little later, Alex sat in a wooden rocking chair on the broad veranda, uncomfortably wearing a brand new Stetson cowboy hat Caitlin had bought for him. He was nursing a white ceramic mug of coffee in one hand and had his Kphone in the other, reading messages. Caitlin came through the thick double door. She was dressed in skin-tight jeans, a plaid cotton shirt, and a white Stetson. Her high-heeled cowboy boots were hand-tooled black leather, with math symbols carved on them in white. She wiggled her behind and trilled, “Ta-da!”

Alex jumped up, spilling hot coffee on his hand.

As he stood, Brooks and LuAnn walked out the front door, followed by Virgil Clemens. All walked toward the corral, talking idly about breakfast, where four saddled horses waited, one with two ranch hands holding its bridle. Another very large saddled horse was standing by Mikey, looking at him as a favored Labrador retriever might.

Mikey walked over to the group and began to assign horses. Each guest moved to the assigned mount. LuAnn was beside Virgil while her horse stood waiting, patiently. Alex was last.

“Young feller,” Mikey said to Alex, “the boys picked this horse out special for you. They thought he’d be good transportation.”

“Daddy! Cottonmouth?” LuAnn whispered. “Stop it!”

“I’ll stop it later, if it gets nasty,” Clemens said quietly. “Right now, it’s just fun. Let’s see if Mikey is as good as I think he is.”

Alex walked to his horse and stood in front of the left stirrup, just behind his nose. They looked at each other. The horse started to turn his head, and his lips curled from flat, yellow teeth. Alex blocked Cottonmouth’s head from turning with his left forearm and stepped forward, sliding his right hand up and over his thick neck to his ears, then between them, probing. There was indeed a tiny gap between his skull plates. Alex slid a forefinger just above that gap and dug a little. Cottonmouth settled back, unsure. Alex leaned to whisper in his ear. “Look, horse, one of us is liable to get hurt here. I’d rather it was you.” He pushed down with his forefinger between the skull plates. Cottonmouth shifted a bit and Alex pushed harder. The horse became still and Alex eased the pressure slightly.

The cowboys holding the horse looked puzzled and at each other quizzically. This was not the Cottonmouth they knew. One of them said to Alex, “Why don’t you just stick your foot in this here stirrup and mount up, cowboy. Other folks are waiting for you.”

Alex stuck his left foot in the stirrup and swung up and over the horse. He felt the horse’s muscles bunching, ready to explode. He pushed much harder on Cottonmouth’s poll. The horse stilled immediately and Alex felt him beginning to weaken at the fore knees. He eased back on the finger pressure. Cottonmouth turned his head, eyes rolled back, awaiting instruction.

Mikey swung on his horse and snuck a wink at Alex.

“Let’s move out now, folks,” he said.

Alex moved the reins against Cottonmouth’s neck, then gave him a little kick. The horse moved obediently to the rear of the line. Alex took his hand from the top of Cottonmouth’s head after one reminder squeeze.

The horses moved at a brisk walk away from the corrals with the mid-morning sun casting a yellow glow on the field. The light put in sharp contrast the mechanical nodding of steel oil well donkeys, rhythmically pumping money from the ground.

One of the cowboys who had been holding Cottonmouth’s bridle said to the other, “He’s a daggone tenderfoot. How did he get onto Cottonmouth and just ride away like he was on a rental pony?”

“Beats me,” the second man, older, said. “It was spooky. He whispered in Cottonmouth’s ear and that was the end of the horse acting up. I never seen the like.”

“I’d sure like to know what the heck he said to that horse,” the younger man muttered.

West Texas

It was late afternoon when the riding party came ambling back to the Clemens ranch, horses close and their riders talking casually. Cottonmouth, with Alex aboard, seemed happy and placid while he walked beside LuAnn and her mount. As they entered the yard and turned to the corral, ranch hands came forward to take the horses and help the riders down from their perches. As Alex dismounted and turned to Caitlin, one of the hands, a young man, reached for Cottonmouth’s bridle. In a flash, Cottonmouth spun his head and knocked the man to the ground and then bared his teeth, reaching for him. Alex yelled, “Hey!” and Cottonmouth stopped as he felt Alex’s hand on the top of his head, pressing hard, then faced back to the front, again apparently placid. Alex stuck out his hand and helped the ranch hand to his feet, then brushed a little red dust from his shirt.

“Sorry about that, young fellow,” he said. “He’s sensitive. I whisper nice things to him. He likes that.” Two older hands stood, jaws agape at the horse’s change in behavior, then shook their heads. Just across the yard, Mikey relaxed on his horse with one leg thrown over the saddle horn, grinning and rolling a smoke.

Virgil leaned against a log pillar at the main house, in the shade, watching the four chatting casually, making their way to the house. When Alex and Caitlin came abreast of him, Virgil said, “Alex, could I have a word with you in private?”

“Sure thing, Virgil,” Alex said. “Caitlin, I’ll catch up with you at the bar in a minute.” Caitlin nodded over her shoulder as she walked inside.

Virgil stepped inside the house and said quietly, “I heard from Mikey that he told you about those nasty critters in the village. If there’s anything I can add to the picture to make a believer out of you, let me know. I’d like to make them go away.”

Alex smiled and said, “I e-mailed the photo that your man, Gomez, took in the cantina to a friend in DC this morning, along with a heads-up. I imagine someone is already looking into it. I may drop by there after dinner for a look.”

“Is this likely to be something where you or Elliot gets involved?” Virgil said. “Mikey said you were in that business for awhile. Elliot for sure was in the violence business.”

“We’re out of that business,” Alex said. “If there is something to be done, the pros will do it. Brooks and I are old and tired. We’d just get in the way, but if I hear that something went down, I’ll let you know.”

“Good. I’d rather not have any trouble here, but if it’s coming, I’d like to be ready.”

“I don’t think it will come to that,” Alex said. “You’re too far from the border. Still, I’ll keep my ears open. I’m heading back to DC tomorrow for a few days.”

“Thanks. Brooks and LuAnn are headed back to New York. Caitlin’s going with you, I think.”

“At least for a day or two,” Alex said. “Right now, I think it’s time for me to have a glass of wine.”

“Caitlin may be getting impatient,” Virgil said with a chuckle. “She’s not one that I’d keep waiting. Good information technology managers are hard to find.”

Caitlin handed Alex a glass of red wine as he reached the bar. She picked up a small bowl of peanuts and walked toward the stairs. He was a step behind.

                                 ****

Two hours later Mikey grinned as Alex and Elliot walked down the path from the ranch house to Mikey’s office and quarters beside the bunk house. “You’re a bit scruffy now, aren’t you, Mr. Cuchulain?” Alex was in a dark T-shirt with a bandana tied around his hair. Elliot was quiet beside him, with a dark shirt, dark pants, and dark-leather hiking boots.

Alex said, “Si, Chico.”

“You speak a little Spanish, do you?”

“Yeah, I do,” Alex said. “It’s a secret. All this shit is secret. I was never in the cantina with Gomez.”

“What do you want to wear?”

“I’ll wear my boots and my jeans. I’ll need an old open-necked shirt, an old worn hat, and a crucifix maybe, to give me luck.”

“Can do. One of Jeeter’s shirts will fit you; he doesn’t need them right now. The rest is easy. Listen, Gomez isn’t sure you can pass as a Latino. He’s nervous about it.”

Alex laughed. “Going into a cantina full of bad guys makes one nervous. Let’s get my clothes together, then Gomez and I will talk. You sit by. If he’s still nervous about me, maybe I go in alone.”

Mickey shrugged. “Gomez is a solid guy. It should be fine. It’s not like we have a sand table to plan this mission. It’s a sneak and peek.”

“It is, indeed. And that’s all it is. If trouble starts, I’ll start it.”

***

Later that evening, just after full darkness fell, Alex and Hector Gomez walked into a small cantina several miles closer to the Mexican border than the Clemens ranch. A quick, casual glance showed two small groups in the room, separated by a number of empty, cheap, wooden tables with flimsy chairs at them. On one side of the room were six men, most dressed in casual clothing. Two of them, with scruffy beards, were seated in the center of the group, dressed a little differently, with coffee mugs in front of them. Two others, who were younger and lean, drank beer from bottles.  A very large man sat beside an older Mexican, who seemed by his body language to be in charge.

Alex and Gomez found a table at the edge of the other group, made up of a few locals. As they sat, Gomez studied Alex. If he hadn’t seen him as part of the Clemens riding party, Gomez would have guessed he was a dangerous Mexican, someone to avoid. His Spanish was fluent and now colloquial, with a vague Mexican accent. Alex had done something to darken his face a little and the scars on his face stood out in white. There were many tiny scars on his forehead and the old furrow of a knife scar slid down his left cheek through thick wrinkles around his eye. The wrinkles were beside both eyes and seemed to bunch up in a hood beside them. He wore an old blue denim shirt, tight across the chest, with the sleeves rolled to the elbow and three buttons open at the neck to reveal a thick thatch of black chest hair with an ornate crucifix on a gold chain hanging amidst it. His forearms were huge and tracked with distended veins. Alex had large, lumpy, battered hands.

Gomez could hear Alex breathing fairly heavily through his nose. This is so fucking exciting! Alex said call him Cooch before we left. His Spanish started as pure, upscale Castilian. He listened to me, then asked questions, then listened carefully again. After twenty minutes or so, Cooch said, “I think this language is close enough.” He started talking in an accent that sounded like he was Mexican, from somewhere. For Mexicans that spend a lot of time out of the country, their accents get blurred. Cooch nailed the accent. Who the hell is this guy? Mikey seems to think he walks on water.

A man brought two beers to them, and then spoke to Gomez.

“So, Hector,” he said. “Welcome back. Who’s your big friend? It’s always nice to see a new face.”

“A distant cousin from Baja California, Pedro,” Gomez said. “We were childhood playmates. This is Alejandro. He’s on his way east and stopped in for the evening. We decided to have a beer.”

Pedro stuck out his hand, and Alex took it, standing. He loomed.

“Hola,” Alex said, as he glanced across the room. Everyone in the room was looking at him, the newcomer. Across the room, the older Mexican studied him carefully.

Alex sat down as the bartender walked away and said to Hector, “These are bad guys. I know one of them, so we got what we came for. Let’s finish our beer and get out of here.”

Gomez nodded and tilted his bottle to his lips. He took two big gulps and put it down.

Alex tilted his bottle and took a sip, watching the leader in his peripheral vision. After a few moments, the older man turned and leaned to the large man beside him. He spoke a few words.

The man set his bottle on the floor and stood. He was wide, with no discernible waist. His hair was dirty, pulled back and held with a rubber band. He hitched his pants and began to approach their table, rolling a little as he walked. There was a confident grin on his face.

When he reached the table, Alex stood up from his chair.

“I am Gordo,” he said, belly bumped Alex back into his chair, and smiled. Gordo had a gold rim around one of his front teeth and there was an incisor missing on the left. Alex reached to Gordo’s elbow to catch himself as he was bumped, and again came to his feet, his index finger digging hard into the little elbow hollow where the funny bone is.

“Ngggh!” Gordo grunted. The surprise of the sharp electric pain immobilized him for a moment.

Alex turned the big man to his left after another deep squeeze into the elbow and brought his left hand to grasp Gordo’s neck. His fingers reached under each ear to the point where the soft mastoid bones are most exposed. He squeezed hard with his thumb on one side and two fingers on the other side of the neck and felt the bones there yield slightly to his grip. The man was still, quivering from the pain.

“Senor,” Cooch said to the older Mexican. “Your colleague is impolite. Is there a reason we should be adversaries?”

“Why are you here?” the man asked. He watched curiously as his messenger stood silent. It was out of character for Gordo to be passive.

“I am here to have a beer with my cousin before continuing my journey to the east. I have no reason other than that to be here. Have we met?”

“We have not, but you don’t fit in here.”

“We don’t, it seems. We’re happy to leave. A noisy altercation might draw the attention of the gringo police. I cannot afford that.”

There was a long silence. “Neither, I suppose, can I afford that. But there are just two of you. We could easily kill you and hide your bodies. We plan to be here only a few more days.”

“There are six of you and five of us,” Alex said. “There may be no one left to dig the graves. And there is no profit in it for you or for me. You will be the first to die; your colleague beside me will be the second. I will likely be the third. It may be better if we just leave now.”

“I think you are lying to me, senor. I see but two of you. The man of mine beside you appears to be useless as an enforcer. So kill him now as a gesture that you are not from the police, then convince me there are more of you. Do you need a knife? Your time is short.”

***

On the drive to the cantina from the Clemens’ ranch, Brooks had been in the passenger seat beside Proctor Mikey. Alex and Hector Gomez sat in the back seat of Mikey’s Crew Cab F250 Ford pickup truck. It was the off-road model, painted a deep red, with big tires and four-wheel drive.

“Nice truck!” Alex had said.

Mikey smiled. “I call her BART, my big-ass red truck. I spend my money on trucks and rifles. I sell a little venison and some boar that I shoot. Since my old lady dumped me ten years ago, life’s been pretty good.”

“OK, let’s keep life good,” Brooks had said. “Here’s the way we do these things, and this is all classified, so no bragging rights back at the ranch. Cooch and Hector will find a table that we can see, that is not in our line of fire, but in our vision. We’ll zero in on the leader, if he is obvious. Cooch will look directly at him when he is standing.

“If it is going to get nasty, Cooch will point at something, like the edge of the bar or a vertical timber. There will be a knife sticking out of it. Shoot the knife at the center of the blade. If he points again, shoot a bottle. If he points at someone, shoot him dead. Then work from right to left and shoot anyone who produces a gun. One shot each. I’ll put the two guys in the corner down and work left to right. At first, I’ll avoid killing anyone who looks like an Arab, because we might want to talk to them. Hector, do not stand up after you sit down. If you have to shoot, drop and shoot from a kneeling position.”

Mikey had grinned. “Fucking Seals,” he said. “You don’t leave much to chance.”

“It sounds like you’ve been there, Mikey,” Brooks had said. “With bad guys we try to leave nothing to chance, but we still manage to get a few buddies killed, from time to time. I’d like to avoid that here.”

“Yeah,” Mikey had said. “I don’t disagree. It’s just nice to work with the A team.”

Cooch and Hector had been dropped short of the cantina, to walk the last fifty yards. Mikey had planned a spot to stop and Gomez had made a rough sketch of the interior of the cantina. The F250 moved quietly past the cantina, then switched off its lights and turned left onto a dirt road that curved back toward the way they had come. Mikey had night-vision goggles pulled down. In a short time, the cantina was visible from the driver’s window and Mikey had turned the truck with its hood away from the open window. The two men got out and lowered the tailgate, then crawled up on the bed of the pickup. Two thick mattress pads were laid out with several small sandbags of dull black nylon stacked at their sides.

Mikey opened a long box mounted against the side wall and picked up a bolt action Remington Model 700 rifle chambered in .308, with a Swarovski Z6i three to eighteen power scope mounted. He had a Leupold range finder dangling from his neck. He reached again and handed Brooks an old M14 semi-automatic rifle that showed signs of loving, professional care. It had a tactical scope mounted. Next came two loaded magazines for it. Mikey had reached again and came out with a small handful of cartridges. He opened the .308’s bolt and began to push them, one at a time, into the ammunition well of his rifle.

“It’s eighty-seven meters to Cooch. Your M14 is zeroed at one hundred yards with 140 grain Nosler bullets. What are we looking at here?” Mikey said a few moments later, as he looked through his range finder.

Elliot looked through his tactical scope, and said, “We can’t see into one corner of the room. I’m going to go twenty-five yards west and find a new spot with a better view. In the meantime, shoot where the man points. Nice M14, by the way. I love this rifle.”

Mikey reached again into the box, brought out two Motorola two-way radios, set the channels, and handed one to Brooks. Brooks dropped it into his shirt pocket and slid to the ground from the extended gate of the truck. He pulled his night-vision goggles down over his eyes. They were not the Generation Four goggles the Seals used, but Generation Two was good enough to see his way on a partially moonlit night.

***

Cooch reached with his right hand to Gordo’s chin and released his left to hold the palm along his jaw line. Just as Gordo started to move, Cooch gave a hard, twisting snap with his right hand as he held the neckline from yielding with his left. There was a sound like a dry branch cracking. As the man crumpled to the floor, Cooch dropped his right hand behind his neck and in one motion threw a knife from a scabbard that hung there. It stuck, quivering, in a vertical wooden roof support beside the Mexican boss.

“I don’t need a knife to kill him,” Cooch said. “He’s dead. There are now five of you. I could have made it four, but thought I would use the knife as a demonstration of your risk. As I said, I would rather not have noisy trouble.”

“Do you have more than one knife, senor, or is that danger gone with your showmanship? What now? I’ve seen no evidence that there are more of you than I see.”

Cooch pointed at the knife. It disappeared with a loud spang; the sound of a nearby shot followed closely through the open window.

“Now you have evidence,” Cooch said. “May we now leave in peace?”

“You have murdered one of my men.”

Cooch sighed loudly. “He was killed only at your request, senor. He wasn’t much. I imagine he’d have died soon anyway if you are in the violence business. But I suspect violence is just a byproduct of something else you do.”

“You know of the violence business?”

“We are in the violence business, senor. All we do is to sell violence and its enabling tools. It’s usually a good business, but this evening is about to be bad for business. We aren’t getting paid.”

“You may leave, but I will remember you. I hope to kill you slowly someday.”

“And I you, senor,” Cooch said. He pointed at the bar. A bottle broke. He reached in his pocket, pulled a roll of bills from it, and dropped several on the table, then turned his back and walked to the door with Hector close behind, a 9mm Sig Sauer Model 229 pistol dangling from Hector’s shaking hand and a huge grin on his face.

… Continued…

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Patriot & Assassin

by Robert Cook
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KND Freebies: COOCH by Robert Cook is featured in today’s Free Kindle Nation Shorts excerpt

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Assassination Thrillers

Think “Lee Child’s Jack Reacher meets David Baldacci’s John Puller… on steroids.”

There’s a new special-ops hero in town
 and he has it all
brawn, brains, looks, cool

and his own deadly brand of violence.

 He’s Alejandro Mohammed “Cooch” Cuchalain and he’s out to get the bad guys in this
action-packed national security thriller.

Cooch

by Robert Cook

4.3 stars – 25 Reviews
Or currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members Via the Kindle Lending Library
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:

Alejandro Mohammed Cuchulain, called Cooch or Alex, became a Marine at sixteen and a CIA special-operations trainee at 17. His father is a wheel-chair bound former Marine and Medal of Honor winner who gives Alex advice as to how to survive in a violent world. His mother is the daughter of a Bedouin sheikh who sends a young Alex off, during his summer breaks, to experience the Bedouin life. The combination of a very young start in learning the art and craft of violence, combined with a thirst for knowledge combine to help him to become both a noted designer and user of explosives and an expert in Islamic affairs.

Violent, yet thoughtful, Cooch represents the best in fast-moving, popular thrillers.

5-star praise for Cooch:

Fabulous fast-paced action!
“…a great addition to my collection of government action thrillers…the story will hook you…”

Cooch is a kick!
“…a refreshing new look at a smart, calculating, good looking, and, yes—deadly hero who defends the United States against any and all bad guys. And he does it before they know what hit them!…Lots of action and lots of fun!”

an excerpt from

Cooch

by Robert Cook

Alex and Caitlin were back in Choppers, once again in business clothes in a booth at the corner of the room. Billy was nowhere to be seen, and Caitlin had nearly finished her beer. The nachos proved nearly inedible. Bouncers converged on a bearded drunk who was standing behind a girl with his hands cupped over her breasts, pretending to dance as she fought and scratched at him over her shoulder. Caitlin said, “This is disgusting. I’m done proving whatever I was proving to myself. I’m going to the ladies room. I’ll see you outside.”

Alex waved for the waitress as Caitlin slid from the booth and walked away. When she finally waddled over, he handed her thirty dollars then turned to walk toward the restrooms and the exit. There was some sort of fuss at the door. As he got closer, it faded to the outside and he walked into the men’s room behind a biker in full black leather regalia. When he stepped back into the hallway, Caitlin was not there. He felt a faint tug of alarm. He pushed the door to the women’s room partly opened and said loudly, “Caitlin, you okay?” There was no answer. He stepped partway inside. There were two women at the sinks, but no Caitlin. He ducked to look under the toilet stall doors. No feet. He could feel the familiar sensation of adrenaline rushing into his body.

“You looking for a tall blonde in a suit? A looker?” one of the women asked, as she glanced at him in the mirror.

“Yes. You see her?” he said.

“She left a couple of minutes ago with a bunch of bikers,” she said. “Didn’t seem real happy about it.”

Alex spun and raced outside. The street was empty except for one Harley at the curb. Just then the biker from the john hurried out, pulling keys from his pocket and moving to his machine, a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth.

Alex walked over to the biker, and just as he looked up, Cuchulain grabbed the man’s nose between the knuckles of his index and middle fingers and twisted sharply, breaking it. He dropped his hand and snatched the cigarette from the man’s mouth, as he grabbed the front of his shirt and rushed him to the outside wall of the bar and banged his back against the old bricks, hard.

“Where did they take the girl?’ Cuchulain demanded.

The biker sprayed blood on him as he spoke. “Fuck you, asshole.”

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Alex snarled. He pushed the lit end of the cigarette into the man’s cheek for a second, and the smell of burnt flesh filled the air. When the scream ended, he pushed the cigarette within an eighth-inch of the biker’s eye, singeing the eyelashes from the lid. “You’ll be blind in ten seconds if you don’t tell me, then I’ll dig around in the sockets. Believe it.”

The biker was suddenly aware that his feet were not touching the ground; that he was being held in the air against the wall with one hand while the other held the cigarette. His cheek felt on fire and urine was burning down his right leg. He quickly blurted the address. Alex slapped him on the forehead with the heel of his hand, bouncing the biker’s head against the wall; the cigarette fluttered to the sidewalk.

Cuchulain grabbed the keys from the hand of the falling, unconscious man and jumped onto the motorcycle, kicked it to life and accelerated down the street, necktie flapping wildly behind him.

The cooling motorcycle engines were still ticking when Alex jumped from the bike and ran to the door, just as a roar of approval and laughter went up from inside. A large man in a black t-shirt and dirty jeans stepped in front of him, blocking his way as he stuck a hand in Alex’s chest. “Beat it, asshole,” he said. “This is a private club.”

Cuchulain grabbed the hand with his left, just below the wrist, then gave it a hard snap up and out, breaking the wrist, as he stepped under the raised arm and drove his right elbow down and back into the guard’s lower back, just above the belt on his right side, then again. Cuchulain reached down quickly, and pulled the man’s thighs back from just above the knees so that his face was driven to the pavement with a resounding thunk. As Cuchulain reached for the door, he snapped a kick into the man’s left ear. The door was unlocked and Cuchulain stepped inside. O’Connor was being held in a chair by two men, bare breasts exposed, while Billy, the leader, had his penis out from the fly of his dirty Levi’s, four inches from her terrified, furious face.

“Hey, Whoa!” Alex yelled.

The room went quiet as heads snapped to see the intruder. Billy’s face lit up in a delighted grin. “Well, if ain’t the fuckin’ pansy. This is my lucky day! You can referee a gangbang—me first. You know, pick out who gets to fuck her next, make sure no one goes twice before everyone goes once and all that shit. By tomorrow, we’ll be starting to wear out, and might even give you a little. But first, I want a little blowjob from Blondie. I sort of promised it to my buddy here,” he leered, pulling the foreskin up and back. “If she bites me, I’ll just knock her teeth out and try again.”

Alex said loudly, “I don’t think so. That would be really dumb. There will be cops everywhere, and you guys are in enough trouble already. For what?” He looked around at the gang, assessing them. He quickly settled on a small, wiry man with very still eyes and a telltale easy balance. He knew the type.

Cuchulain eased toward him and spoke again. “I’ll tell you what. You guys are supposed to be the baddest asses in New York. What if I arm wrestle two of you at once for the girl? If you win, you keep the girl and no cops. If I win, we walk. It would save you a ton of hassle with the cops. You know that I can’t beat two of you, so why not? I gotta do something! Deal?”

Ignoring the others, he looked steadily at the small, quiet man who looked around and then said, “What if we all fuck her, beat the living shit out of you, and toss you both in an alley somewhere? We’ll just give you both some pills that Billy bought down in Mexico, where you can’t remember shit about what happened lately. What then? Cops? You won’t remember enough to make a decent witness.” The room was quiet as the other bikers turned to look at Alex.

“No, slick. You get me,” Alex said coldly.

The small man felt a surge of recognition and imminent danger. The quiet eyes moved over Cuchulain again, assessing him, noting the familiar combat balance, feeling himself sink involuntarily into a defensive posture as cold hostility oozed from Cuchulain’s eyes. The flesh on the outside edges of Cuchulain’s eyes began to bunch and extend, giving him the facial cast of a hooded cobra. Breath whistled loudly from his nostrils. The small man pulled up his right sleeve and bared a veined, muscular forearm. The distinctive beer can logo of the Navy’s Seals was tattooed on the inner arm, starting to fade, but unmistakable.

“I used to be in the Navy. The name’s Dodd. Do I know you?”

Alex smiled coldly. “I need something from my right pocket, Okay?”

Dodd reached behind his vest and swung out a small, stainless steel automatic. He clicked the safety off, thumbed the hammer back and pointed the pistol directly at Alex’s navel and said. “Do it very slowly.”

Cuchulain reached slowly into his right trouser pocket and pulled out a half-dollar coin. He offered it to the small man.

Dodd nodded in recognition, lowered the pistol and said, “No. I heard about this. I just gotta see it.”

Alex held the half-dollar in front of him, at eye height, showing it to the crowd. Then he positioned his thumb on the bottom of the coin and his middle and index finger on the top. He began to squeeze. As he increased the pressure, veins swelled across his hand and the skin pad between his thumb and forefinger humped slowly up like a ragged tumor. The room was still, except for the noise of Cuchulain’s breathing.

The coin began to bend, then slowly fold.

Cuchulain’s hand was now quivering visibly, and his forearm had swollen to stretch tight his suit jacket sleeve. Then the coin folded in half.

“Jeeesus Christ!” one of the bikers exclaimed softly.

Cuchulain casually flipped the folded coin at Dodd’ right shoulder and shifted his weight toward him. The pistol came back up as Dodd snatched the coin out of the air with his left hand. “Nice try.” he said. “But I still got it. And I still got you. But I know who you are.”

Alex waited.

Dodd said, “I’m tempted. You know we can’t just let you go. What happens if we just waste you now? No fuss. You know I got you, don’t you? And there’s twenty of us.”

Cuchulain nodded. “You have me. I might not even get you. But I probably would. Probably Billy, too, and three or four others when I take your gun. For sure I wouldn’t get all of you. ”

Dodd smiled faintly. “And?”

“And you get everyone here dead. Fast. No cops. No jury. Just dead. Probably more than a bit of pain for you if it’s convenient. But dead.”

“By?” Dodd asked.

Cuchulain smiled. Now he had Dodd. “The Horse, Jerome Masterson, lives in town here,” he said. “You know about him and me, and the folks that the two of us know well. Lieutenant Elliot is here, too. He owes me from a Middle East operation. You just might know him.”

Dodd shifted, as memory rushed in. “Yeah, Lebanon. You saved his ass. I missed that one. Lieutenant Elliot, huh? He ain’t no prize; he’s meaner than a fuckin’ cottonmouth.” He looked around at the gang. They were getting restless and stealing glances at Caitlin’s bare breasts, thinking about their turns.

He said softly to Cuchulain, “Okay, I’m in. But I don’t think they’re going to buy it—won’t believe me. We may have to kill some—probably will. Shit!” He raised his eyebrows in a question.

“Try to sell us walking. If it won’t go, sell the arm wrestling. Lacking that, I’ll take the Colt from the guy behind you and we’ll nail eight or ten. After I kill Billy; go to one knee and work from the right. Head shots. Killing a few more should end it, and the cops will be here by then. That should end it. I’ll handle the mess. Anyone looking for you?”

“The cops in a few cities have my prints and would like to find me; same with DEA,” Dodd said. “You sure about the arm wrestling? There’s some big fuckers here, and I don’t want the shooting to start.”

Cuchulain nodded, “Sell it.”

Dodd shifted back slightly, turning to the group, keeping his right arm hanging down and slightly behind him.

“Listen up, guys!” he said. “I know about this guy. A lot of Seals say that he’s the baddest motherfucker that ever lived, and you guys know that there’s a bunch of mean motherfuckers among us. He is truly a badass.”

Alex stepped back a little, as he chose his target if the balloon went up. He’d need a gun and shifted slightly toward a fat, bearded man with the checkered wooden grips of a Colt .45 automatic sticking up from his belt. The hammer was down and the thumb safety on; Alex would have the gun and take out his throat before the man could ever get his gun into action.

Dodd said, “Our lives won’t be worth a shit if we don’t let him and her go. Trust me on that. And if we kill him, ten or fifteen bodaciously bad guys are coming for us. Gloves off. They wouldn’t dream of using their fists if they could easier shoot or knife you in the back. They’ll have machine guns, explosives, sniper rifles—all that shit. It won’t be pretty, and none of us will live through it. For sloppy sevenths on a piece of ass? And can you imagine the fucking cops? They’re already like flies on shit around here!”

Billy bellowed, “That’s bullshit! I told her what I was going to do and I’m gonna do it! This is prime pussy, and that pansy don’t look so bad to me. If I wasn’t fucked up from spilling my bike the other day, I’d take him myself. You don’t run this fuckin’ gang, Dodd, I do!”

Dodd sighed as some of the men nodded at Billy’s speech. “Look, Billy, there’s a bunch of us that don’t want to see the cops or the feds up close,” he said. “You’re left handed. Why don’t you arm wrestle him for it? You’re messed up for a fight, but there’s nothing wrong with your left arm. Besides, no one has ever beaten you but Bubba, and no one beats Bubba. We’re getting enough shit from the cops already. It wouldn’t be good for business.”

Billy looked startled, and then the ends of his lips curled up in a cruel, wolfish smile. “Fuck that! He said he wants two at once, and I want the girl. He gets Bubba and Kevin while me and one-eye take a rest so’s we have lots of energy for later. Whichever one slams the pansy’s arm down first gets seconds on the pussy after me. The loser gets the second blow job.”

Dodd took control quickly. “Deal!” he said. “Let’s get a table cleared and some chairs over here.”

Alex jerked his tie down and unbuttoned the top three buttons on his shirt, giving him access to the throwing knife that always hung at his back, just below his collar. If things went bad, Billy would find himself with it buried in his throat. Cuchulain pulled his jacket off and threw it over a chair backed to the wall and stood, casually rolling his shirtsleeves, waiting and assessing the crowd for the ones who could be trouble. Caitlin watched him, her eyes wide and her jaw hanging slack, oblivious of her naked breasts.

Alex moved his chair across the wall to the table and waited. Bubba and Kevin brought out chairs and sat down, grinning at Cuchulain. Bubba had long, shaggy hair and a ragged beard, tangled with the remnants of the past few days’ meals. He was well over six feet and enormously fat, probably weighing upwards of three hundred pounds. He put a huge arm on the table, hawked his throat and spat a brownish wad of phlegm on Alex’s shirt, just splattering the edge of his tie. There was a large tattoo on the inside of Bubba’s huge forearm that spelled out “Eat Shit!” in Old English letters. Kevin was a bodybuilder, and a big one. He had acne and his hair was sparse, but the steroids had given him enviable bulk.

Alex dropped into the chair and put his upper arms on the table, with his veined and pulsing forearms vertical and shoulder width apart. Then he began to focus his energy. He felt his local awareness fade as he focused his conscious being into a core of energy just beneath his navel, feeling as if each molecule of his being was rushing to one central repository, then waiting to be dispatched. The sound of his breath whistled even louder through his nose.

Dodd said, “Okay. Get them lined up, and I’m going to count to three. On three, go for it.”

Alex was barely aware as Kevin and Bubba lined up. As they each clasped a hand and bore down with their grip, Cuchulain was only peripherally aware that he was countering their force. He heard Dodd at a distance, say, “One, two …” Cuchulain released his energy just before Dodd said three, driving every ounce of his being into his hands in a single, furious contraction. He felt both their hands collapse, then yield under his sudden onslaught; the sound of snapping bones could be heard in the room. Alex slammed both their hands across his chest to the table and stood, then casually grabbed Bubba by the front of his hair and smashed his face into the table, twice. It had taken less than ten seconds. He folded his jacket over his arm.

“I think we will be leaving now, gentlemen,” he said, and turned toward Caitlin.

You cheated,” one biker yelled. “You went before three!”

“Sit down, asshole,” Cuchulain said coldly. “You go on three and I’ll go on six. Then I’ll rip your arm off at the shoulder.”

“Fuck you,” the biker yelled. “Why don’t you just get the hell out of here?”

Alex nodded and walked swiftly toward Caitlin. The gang was momentarily stunned by the vision of Kevin and Bubba still at the table, each holding a mangled hand, moaning softly as the swelling started and blood began to pool around Bubba’s twitching face.

“Bullshit!” Billy yelled as he stepped in front of Cuchulain, pulling his fist back. Cuchulain stepped in quickly and used his huge neck to slam his forehead into Billy’s nose and eyes; he felt nose and cheekbones collapse and eye sockets crack and crumble an instant later. The web of his left hand slammed into Billy’s Adam’s apple and his thumb closed on the carotid artery, shutting off the blood supply to his brain. Cuchulain drove his right hand deep into Billy’s crotch, squeezing his penis and testicles through his jeans. He began to rip, focusing on delivering all the power that he could generate. The sound of denim tearing pierced the silent room. As Alex felt resistance there collapse, he began to twist as he squeezed, feeling flesh and tendons ripping and releasing. As Billy lost consciousness, Cuchulain bent his knees to lower him to the floor, his head up as he watched the gang. When he stood, he was holding Billy’s pistol. The snap of the safety being released by Cuchulain’s right thumb was eerily loud in the room. He worked the slide on the automatic once, and a cartridge tumbled noisily across the dirty floor. He turned and reached for Caitlin, looking coldly at the two men holding her, who stepped back quickly. Cuchulain draped his jacket over her shoulders and led her to the door. He nodded at Dodd just before he stepped out and pulled the door closed.

Outside, Cuchulain stepped hard on the inert guard’s neck as he grabbed Caitlin’s arm and guided her. He engaged the safety on Billy’s pistol and slid it behind his belt at the small of his back. They were almost at a run as they left the alley and moved down the street and around the corner, Cuchulain waving to an approaching cab with its “on duty” light on. He opened the door and pushed her inside, almost roughly, then moved in beside her. He gave the cabbie his home address, then put his arm around Caitlin. She was already shaking, and her teeth were beginning to chatter.

“Just take it easy,” he said. “It’s over now. We’re going to my place.”

“No, I want to go back to my room. I want to be alone!”

Cuchulain shook his head and turned to her on the ragged seat. “Listen to me, Caitlin. This is the worst possible time for you to be alone. You could go into shock. Someone has to keep an eye on you, and that’s going to be me. We’re going to my place.”

“I am in no mood for romance, Cuchulain. Okay?” she chattered.

“I promise,” he said.

They took the elevator to his apartment. It was sparsely but expensively furnished, with the look of a place done by a decorator and seldom touched since. The exception was two floor-to-ceiling bookcases full of volumes and a small desk that held a dual computer setup with neatly stacked papers around it. A large oil painting on the living room wall depicted a group of fishermen in a traditional boat, pulling in nets at sunrise under the shaded mass of Gibraltar. On the stand beside a reclining reading chair was a worn leather-bound copy of the Quran with a yellowed ivory bookmark placed partway through.

Cuchulain led her to the couch and said, “I’ll get some blankets and make some tea. Tea’s good in this situation. Maybe a drink later.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. “A drink now! A big drink!”

He walked quickly to the bedroom and came back with two wool blankets and a towel. He wrapped the blankets around her, tucking them tight, then smoothed the towel across her lap, pushing a little dent in the middle. Caitlin seemed a little startled and curious by the towel, but said nothing.

“I’ll get the drinks,” Alex said.

He came back with two glasses of cognac and the bottle. “Sip this,” he said, handing her one glass with a light portion of cognac poured into it. He sat beside her and sipped on his own glass, waiting for her to give him a hint as to how to distract her from the evening’s events.

Caitlin tipped up her glass and drained it, then shuddered. “Oh, my God, Alex. I’m still terrified,” she said, shaking. “I’ve never been that afraid before, or that furious. I’m also sorry that I didn’t kick that asshole in the balls as we walked out! That was just awful! I hate that those animals exist.”

“They’ve been around since the beginning, Caitlin. Society just doesn’t let them out that often, at least in this country,” Alex said, happy that she had picked a topic familiar to him. “More of them were in Nazi Germany, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina lately than elsewhere, but they’re always around. There’s still a bunch in the Middle East.”

“With all of our technology and power, why can’t we just get rid of people like that?” Caitlin fumed.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Alex said. “I don’t know of a politician, alive or dead, that could be trusted with the power to accomplish that, if even we could do it. Politicians are, by my definition, megalomaniacs to some degree, and most of them care only about money and votes. Those bikers tonight were one form of villain, but religious fanatics are worse, because they think that they can both interpret and enforce the word and the will of God—to their personal benefit of course. I think we should just kill the leaders of those sociopaths, one by one. Their followers will disappear with no piper to follow.”

Caitlin snorted. “I don’t think they know the first thing about God, or what she thinks!” she said, throwing up suddenly, and barely catching the foul mass in the towel on her lap.

‘Sorry,” she said. “That came from nowhere. Gross!”

Cuchulain held his hands in front of her so that she could see them shaking. “It’s part of the adrenaline depletion,” he said. “Try to relax and take your mind away from tonight. It will make things seem more normal, and you’ll recover faster. It happens to everyone.”

“This is what happens when you’re scared, and I was scared, too,” he said.

He sat for a few seconds sipping his drink, then started to push the conversation back to something distracting. “I sometimes have nightmares about Torquemada returning in modern form,” he said. “People should study the Spanish Inquisition to see what happens when vast power is granted to religious fanatics. It’s a shame no one killed him early.”

‘So, if you’ve thought about this a lot, what’s the right answer?” she asked, studying him, still shaking.

“Darned if I know,” he chuckled. “I guess if I’ve reached any tentative conclusion at all, it’s that we should worry about our own country first, and then the others—and pick off the bad guys’ leaders, one at a time. Without us the world could once again become a real cesspool—and quickly. It’s happening slowly anyhow, it seems to me.”

The images of the evening suddenly came back to Caitlin. She turned quickly to Cuchulain, the blanket falling from her shoulders. She pulled his jacket around her ripped blouse. “When you came through that door, I was so proud of you for coming in there to defend me from those animals, but I knew that you were going to be hurt very badly, if not killed,” she said. “I don’t even want to think about all of those fucking vermin above me, humping and pumping, one after the other. How did you know what to do? Your behavior seemed so bizarre, but it worked!”

He sat for a second and took another sip of his cognac. “Bizarre behavior freaks people out and limits what they think they can do. I stunned them with it until I lucked out enough to find a guy who knew me a little; my face change helps to create bizarre when I’m excited.”

Caitlin sat silent for several moments, wrapping the blanket more tightly around her shoulders, still shivering. “Yes, you looked like a fucking snake, and I hate snakes! But how did he know you? Who are you that he said, and I quote, ‘He is the baddest motherfucker in the whole world?’”

Alex sat silent for awhile, then said, “I was an active Marine for quite a while—eight years, in fact. I told you about it, briefly. I was good at it. Dodd had been a Navy Seal, and he just knew me, or knew about me. I have unusually strong hands, as you saw, and that kind of word gets around.”

She sat thinking for a while longer, as the shivering subsided. She took the bottle from the table and poured another full glass of cognac and drank half of it. “I thought that I was going to be humiliated and debased. I was terrified—I was consumed with fury! I wanted so badly to kill them, but had no way to do it. They are such a bunch of worthless pigs! And then you came in—and I was afraid for you.”

“But I didn’t need to be, did I Alex?” Caitlin said. “That reptilian little man was afraid of you, wasn’t he? You had it under control, didn’t you?”

Alex sighed, and said, “No, Caitlin. I didn’t have it under control. I just worked with what I had, and I got lucky. But thank you for being afraid for me. It could have gotten very ugly, very quickly.”

“And that little man wasn’t afraid of you?” she said.

“He was wary, not afraid,” Alex said. “He had heard about me when he was a Seal. Because of what he had heard, he believed what I told him, and didn’t like the odds.”

“Jesus Christ!” she said. “You told him that Brooks Elliot and some horse person would kill them all if they didn’t let us go. And he believed you! Was it true?”

Alex gave the shrug she had seen before. “Who knows? They probably would have tried, and I can’t imagine that a bunch of hoods like that would have stood much of a chance against them. Dodd knew that.”

“Who the hell are you, Cuchulain? You force your way into my life, and I think that you’re a nice, good-natured guy with a great body and a good mind, who happens to own a bunch of my stock. And God, I was worried that you were a fucking wimp! You’re clearly a lot more than that, and a lot of what you seem to be is disturbing to me. I didn’t even know that people like you existed; you were like an animal, and your face got really spooky—not that I wasn’t glad to have you there tonight, but God, you’re not what I thought. You were probably some kind of killer or something, trained by the government, and Brooks was probably one, too. Again, who the hell are you?”

And how did you get this way? she asked herself.

… Continued…

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Cooch
by Robert Cook
4.3 stars – 25 reviews!
Kindle Price: $4.77

Robert Cook’s National Security Techno-Thriller PATRIOT AND ASSASSIN is Featured in Today’s Free Excerpt From Thriller of The Week *PLUS A Chance to Win a $50.00 Amazon Gift Card From BookGorilla

On Friday we announced that Robert Cook’s Patriot And Assassin is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

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Patriot and Assassin

by Robert Cook

4.5 stars – 17 Reviews
Or currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members Via the Kindle Lending Library
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

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:

Prologue

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


 

Southwest Texas

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.[1] 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.

 


 

 Continued….

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Robert Cook’s National Security Techno-Thriller PATRIOT AND ASSASSIN, An Alejandro “Cooch” Cuchulain Novel, With 4.5 Stars on 17 Reviews!

How many Kindle thrillers do you read in the course of a month? It could get expensive were it not for magical search tools like these:

And for the next week all of these great reading choices are brought to you by our brand new Thriller of the Week, Robert Cook’s Patriot And Assassin. Please check it out!

Patriot and Assassin

by Robert Cook

4.5 stars – 17 Reviews
Or currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members Via the Kindle Lending Library
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

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.

5-Star Amazon Reviews

“I highly recommend this book, not just as a thriller (and a good one at that), but also as a window into the near future.”

“If you like to get lost in another world this is a book for you, the characters and settings are described so vividly it’s easy to imagine being there. Couldn’t put it down.”

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Enjoy This Free Excerpt From KND Thriller of The Week: Award Winning Cooch by Robert Cook

On Friday we announced that Robert Cook’s Cooch is our Thriller of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the thriller, mystery, and suspense categories: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!

Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Thriller excerpt:

Winner of the e-Lit Gold medal for best national thriller

Cooch

by Robert Cook

4.4 stars – 23 Reviews
Or currently FREE for Amazon Prime Members Via the Kindle Lending Library
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
Alejandro Mohammed Cuchulain, called Cooch or Alex, became a Marine at sixteen and a CIA special-operations trainee at 17. His father is a wheel-chair bound former Marine and Medal of Honor winner who gives Alex advice as to how to survive in a violent world. His mother is the daughter of a Bedouin sheikh who sends a young Alex off, during his summer breaks, to experience the Bedouin life. The combination of a very young start in learning the art and craft of violence, combined with a thirst for knowledge combine to help him to become both a noted designer and user of explosives and an expert in Islamic affairs. Violent, yet thoughtful, Cooch represents the best in fast-moving, popular thrillers.

And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:

Cooch

1

New York

Downtown

Choppers was jammed and loud. Smoke curled around cheap

lamps hanging from an ancient, bulging ceiling, and the sounds of

Ernest Tubbs blared from huge speakers mounted high in two corners

above a tiny dance floor. Groups of young men and women in jeans

mingled with tattooed men in cutoff, black T-shirts, and leather

vests, but mostly the groups were of their own. The smell of stale

sweat competed with the essence of Happy perfume and the pungent

stench of marijuana.

Alex and Caitlin slipped into a booth just as another couple left

it. A large-breasted waitress, going to fat, in shorts and a fitted body

shirt came to take their order. “I’ll have a beer, Sam Adams,” Caitlin

said.

“Me too,” Alex said.

There was a strange medley of people on the dance floor. Bikers in

leather were dancing close with preppy young women with barrettes

in their hair. A few of the women were trying to pull their hips away
from their sweaty, bearded, unwashed dance partners, most of whom

had both hands on the girls’ buttocks, pulling them into their erections.

But a few of the other women were grinding their hips back to

their dance partner, enjoying the danger and the forbidden fruit.

A huge, bearded man walked up to their table, his body odor

preceding him. His belly pushed an old denim shirt over his belt,

which had a wide, silver Harley-Davidson buckle, and a sheath knife

strapped on the right side, facing back. Thick, black hair covered his

arms and curled from his shirt, which was open halfway to his navel.

He smiled at Caitlin, showing his yellowed teeth, one with a prominent

gold cap.

“My name’s Billy. I run this gang. Let’s dance,” he said, and

reached to grasp her hand.

Caitlin pulled her hand from his. “Thank you, but no. I don’t

dance.”

He laughed loudly and reached again for her. “I’ll teach you.

You’re gonna like it.”

Caitlin grabbed his little finger and bent it back. “I said I don’t

want to dance. What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?”

Billy ripped her hand from his finger. “Listen, bitch,” he snarled.

“This is my bar. If I want to fuckin’ dance with you, you’re going to

fuckin’ dance with me. If I want you to suck my dick, you’re going to

fuckin’ suck my dick and swallow, not spit. Your little fairy boyfriend

there don’t have shit to say about this. I’m the boss here.”

Billy turned to glare and lean menacingly at Alex. “You got the

message, pansy?” he said.

Alex watched two bouncers rush across the room, separating to

approach Billy from either side. Others were flowing among the

crowd, ready to stop budding trouble.

Alex turned his head and stared at him. “Yeah, I got the message,

Billy.”

Just then the bouncers got to either side of Billy, and grasped his

arms. One of them said, “It’s time to go, Billy. We’ve talked about

this before.”

They started to pull him away when Billy said to Caitlin, “Listen,

you snotty cunt. If I ever see you again, and I fuckin’ well hope I do,

then we’re gonna have some fun. You’re gonna find out why they call

me big Billy!”

“You’re an animal!” Caitlin shouted at him. Then she turned to

Alex. “As for you—thanks for all your support! Let’s get out of here.”

Billy crowed loudly as they pulled him away. “No pussy for you

tonight, pansy. No head, neither.”

Alex stood, tossed a twenty-dollar bill on the table, and followed

Caitlin from the bar. As the bouncers hustled Billy out of the bar,

several bikers stood staring at Alex and Caitlin, grinning. Another

made little kissing sounds as they walked by.

When they got outside, Alex said, “Let’s get out of sight and grab

a cab.” He had her arm and was moving her quickly down the street

when she pulled her arm from his grasp.

“Keep your hands off me, Cuchulain!” she snapped. “You weren’t

so forceful back there in the bar. I’m not afraid of those people, and

I’m not going to run from them. They‘re animals! God, that was

disgusting.”

They walked at a slower pace and finally turned the corner.

“Well, are you going to say anything, Cuchulain?” she asked.

He waved down a cab and they jumped in. “Let’s go back uptown

and have a drink somewhere quiet and talk about it,” he said as the

cab pulled away from the curb. “I know just the place.”

“You’re sure there are no bad guys there?” O’Connor sneered.

Alex smiled. “I certainly hope not.”

A few minutes later they settled into a corner booth at a small

wine bar in the West 70s. O’Connor looked intently at him.

“So talk to me, Cuchulain. I sort of assumed you were the type to

jump to my defense, whether I needed help or not.”

“And you like men who do that?” he said.

She sat back in the booth and took a sip of her wine. “No, for

the most part, I detest it. It’s just so macho. Billy scared me. What a

fucking pig! I think he scared you too. He did, didn’t he, Cuchulain?”

“Caitlin, of course I was scared. Billy had a knife and a ton of

friends there. I know this is going to sound like bullshit. I’m sorry

about that, but I think it’s the truth. Quite simply, there was no need

for me to do anything. So I didn’t.”

She studied him over the rim of her glass. “And you think you

could have? Is that bodybuilder look just a bit of narcissism or do you

have that much animal in you? I’m pretty damned sure you don’t, but

I would have been less sure before watching you tonight. And if you

were that much of an animal, I’m not sure I’d like you.”

Alex chuckled. “Ah, the conundrum of civilized behavior. If you

deal with animals by using animal behavior against them, are you

civilized for protecting the society, whatever it takes, or have you

become an animal and consequently not fit to mingle in civilized

society? Do we say thank you and give out a medal and invite him

to speak at graduation, or do we keep our would-be hero chained

in the backyard like a pit bull, always half afraid he will turn on us

someday?”

O’Connor sat tapping her foot reflexively, studying him. Finally

she said, “In your case, I suspect that the argument is academic, but

I’ll probably never know. I do know that Brooks Elliot would have

reacted differently.”

He shrugged. “Maybe.”

“Well, I’m going to be in New York for another week and a half.

Before I go back to California, I’m going back there. Back to that

animal farm. I hate this feeling of intimidation that I have right now.

I’m going to exorcise it.”

“That’s probably a bad idea,” Cuchulain said, “but it’s none of my

business. Do you mind if I trail along with you? I didn’t get to drink

my beer.”

Caitlin studied him for a second. “You’re welcome, but you may

get spanked if you’re not careful.”

Cuchulain smiled and said, “Sounds kinky. I can’t wait.”

New York

Midtown

Several days later Caitlin walked beside Brooks Elliot from a
conference room at Goldman Sachs. Axial was trying to schedule

another round of public fund-raising in a difficult environment;

Brooks Elliot was leading the charge at Goldman. As they stood

awaiting the elevator, Caitlin said, “Why don’t I buy you lunch? I

want to ask you about something.”

“Sure!” Elliot said. “Any ‘druthers?”

“You pick, I’ll buy.”

“Deal. There’s a great sushi place that’s not too far.”

Fifteen minutes later they sat in a booth at a Japanese restaurant

named Hana, each sipping hot miso soup from black lacquer bowls

held in two hands. No spoons.

“Okay, what’s on your mind, Caitlin?” Brooks said.

“Have you talked to Alex lately?”

Elliot nodded. “I played squash with him yesterday morning, and

then we had breakfast. Why?”

“Did you win?”

“Yeah, I won. I usually do.”

“Why do you usually win?”

“Alex is fairly new to the game. He tends to muscle the ball.”

“Did he tell you about taking me to that biker bar the other

night?”

“Why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind, Caitlin,” Elliot

said. “You may recall that I don’t like to be quizzed about Alex.”

She sat for a moment, phrasing in her mind. “I’d just like to get

a better handle on him,” she said. “I don’t know, Brooks. Alex just

seems so calm, so cautious. But there seems to be this underlying

aura of menace—of ruthlessness. I can’t seem to put my finger on it. I

thought that I had a beginning handle on him until the other night,

but it looks as though I was wrong. He puzzles me enough to make

me uncomfortable.”

Elliot sat, waiting.

“You’ve known me too long,” she said. O’Connor gave a faint

smile and shrugged her shoulders almost imperceptibly. “But let’s

just say that I’m curious. He says he’s interested in me. I’m trying

to figure out if I’m interested in him. I just can’t get a handle on

him. He seems like the kind of guy who would jump up, all macho,

and embarrass the shit out of me if anyone said a cross word to me,

and you know I just hate that bullshit. But we were in a nasty situation

in a biker bar downtown the other night. I was pretty scared

and really pissed too. I’ll spare you the details, but this fat pig was

saying some strong shit to me, and Alex just sat there; he didn’t

say a word. If the bouncers hadn’t shown up, it could have gotten

ugly. Alex didn’t defend me; he didn’t tell the guy to back off. He

just sat there like a wimp. Dumb—and probably terrified. I know

I was.” She shifted in her chair, thinking.

“Alex is not a coward, Caitlin,” Elliot said with an odd smile on

his face. “He wouldn’t bring dishonor on your warrior clan. It’s even

possible he could bring something to the table.

“Caitlin, there’s something I just don’t get here,” Elliot said as he

gazed at her still, closed face. “This just doesn’t sound like the Caitlin

O’Connor I know. You could have broken the fat guy’s finger, but you

didn’t. Your father once told me you got a brown belt in judo when

you were thirteen and wanted boxing lessons too. He worried for a

while about the way you got violent when you didn’t get what you

wanted—anger management expense for him, wasn’t it?”

“That shit!” O’Connor said, her eyes flashing. “He never told me

he told you that. Anyway, that anger counselor was dumber than a

fence post and tried to look up my skirt all the time. Jesus H. Christ,

where do they find those idiots and give them a PhD?”

“Remember me?” Elliot said quietly. “I’m the one who doesn’t

get distracted easily. Give up on the defensive time warp, and let’s

continue to discuss your relationship with the lovely and charming

patrons at Choppers.”

“Oh, fuck you, asshole,” Caitlin exploded loudly. The other Hana

patrons turned to stare.

“You had never been afraid before like that, had you? I mean really

stark terrified,” Elliot said. “You lost your nerve because of it, because

that much adrenaline was a new thing, and you had more than one

potential assailant, all armed. Now you’re trying to rebuild your ego

by laying the problem off on Alex. Jesus, Caitlin! I’d forgotten how

self-centered you are—how driven by your view of yourself!”

“Up your giggy, Elliot,” O’Connor whispered. “Take your tabletop

psychoanalysis and put it where the sun don’t shine.”

“And what would you like to discuss instead, my charming, articulate

friend?”

Caitlin leaned forward, her right hand extended toward him, long

fingers curling repeatedly back in supplication. “Come on, Elliot—

give! This is not about me, right now. What’s the story on Cuchulain?

You know I wouldn’t ask lightly. This is embarrassing enough without

me having to beg.”

His mind was racing. She was tough to brush off. “What do you

want to know? Alex is my best friend, and I’ve only known him as

an adult. He’s honest, incredibly bright, even by your standards—a

wonderful and loyal friend, and hardworking. There’s no one on the

planet I respect more.”

“I bare my soul and you give me platitudes—pablum!” she spat,

while coolly thinking she never dreamed she would hear that kind

of endorsement from Brooks F.T. Elliot IV, about anyone. Cuchulain

suddenly became more interesting to her. She decided to take a different

tack.

“Brooks, Brooks—I’m lonely,” she said softly. “I’d like to have

someone in my life. Someone presentable to take to the occasional

charity ball, someone to take a vacation with, someone who just likes

me for me and not what my press says I am. You know what it costs

me to have this conversation with you; it’s just not the kind of thing

I do.”

“Yeah, I know it’s not.” Elliot sat for a few moments, sipping

green tea, thinking. “Caitlin, you know I want to help, but I’m not

going to act as Alex’s unauthorized biographer. Okay—if I’m going

to answer the question, I’ll answer it short and straight, or I’ll decline

to answer and take a pass on not just the subject, but the whole topic

area. If you structure and phrase your questions carefully, I’ll answer

them. Don’t ask me anything you could just as well ask him. Don’t

game me.”

She picked up a piece of raw tuna with her chopsticks, dunked

it into a film of soy sauce in a ceramic saucer, and popped it into her

mouth. Then she picked up her tea mug.

“Okay, here goes,” she said, sipping. “Is he a wimp, or a wuss, or

something dressed up like a wolf that isn’t a wolf?”

“No,” Elliot said.

“Is he a wolf?”

“Pass,” he said.

“Does he have the courage of his convictions and the willingness

to defend them?”

Brooks smiled. “Maybe more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“That’s interesting,” Caitlin said, sitting up a little. “Could be a

little scary, though. Do I need to think or worry about that?”

“Yes.”

She gazed intently at Elliot. “Tell me about that.”

“No, and the broad topic is off the air.”

“Is he dangerous?”

“Is he dangerous to you?” His eyebrows rose and he allowed a look

of incredulity to flicker across his face. “Absolutely not.”

“That wasn’t what I meant, and you know it!” she fumed.

Elliot shook his head. “Broad topic’s gone. You’re winning. I’m

giving you more than I said I would. This little interrogation is close

to being over.”

She held her hands up in surrender. “Okay, okay. Just a couple

more. Do you want to hear the biker story?”

“No. I already heard it from him.”

“Really! Tell me what Alex said.”

“No. Ask him.”

O’Connor was fighting her temper, and losing. “Goddammit,

Brooks, this just doesn’t compute. Why are you being this way?

Jesus, remember me? I’ve known you for more than ten years, and we

were sleeping together for three of them. I was a virgin when I met

you, for Christ’s sake. You’re one of my best friends. Why won’t you

help keep me from being hurt? You’ve managed to hurt my feelings

a little, which I didn’t think you could do anymore.”

Elliot started to speak, then stopped, groping for the right words.

“I’m not comfortable with this conversation,” he said. “But I’m going

to give this one more try, because even if you’re gaming me with the

hurt feelings to get more information, I think you should probably

know anyhow. You’re a good friend, and I want to help keep you from

getting hurt.”

Elliot leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling, then

said softly, “First, I’m more loyal to him than I am to you, even

though I very much like and respect you. You should take that

feeling into consideration. I agree with you on the marriage and baby

thing—probably wouldn’t have worked. I owe you big for that.

Second, Cuchulain is fully formed, intellectually and emotionally.

He’s not your intellectual equal, but he’s in the neighborhood,

and anyway, formed in a far different mold. He’s applied intelligence;

you are pure.”

 

 

He looked back down and smiled. “God, I could sell

tickets to Mensa for a chance to listen in on the two of you if you ever

get serious. Third, you should avoid putting him into situations where he

may have to react violently. The biker bar could have been ugly. He

and I play by different rules than most people.”

Caitlin looked thoughtful. “I’m going back down there. I just

have to, and Cuchulain said he wanted to come along. Maybe I should

just go without him.”

“You should probably take him, my previous comments notwithstanding.

He’s useful in places like that. I assume that drinking one

beer and sitting for a few minutes in defiance will satisfy this unreasonable

compulsion of yours to be the Irish Rambo.”

She delicately raised her middle finger to Brooks as she screwed

her face into a grimace. He laughed.

“Look, Caitlin. You should give him a chance. This is a wonderful

guy. He’ll try to keep from hurting you. He’ll try to deal with your

ego and your intellect, and they are about equal in size. Dealing with

them together is no day at the beach—I’ve been there.”

“Oh, I see. I’m fucked up and he’s perfect?”

“Don’t you pull that shit with me, Caitlin,” Elliot snapped.

“You’re not perfect and neither is he. What I’m not going to do is go

down that road with you—or for you.”

New York

Downtown

Alex and Caitlin were back in Choppers, once again in business

clothes in a booth at the corner of the room. Billy was nowhere to be

seen, and Caitlin had nearly finished her beer. The nachos proved nearly

inedible. Bouncers converged on a bearded drunk who was standing

behind a girl with his hands cupped over her breasts, pretending to

dance as she fought and scratched at him over her shoulder.

“This is disgusting,” Caitlin said. “I’m done proving whatever

I was proving to myself. I’m going to the ladies room. I’ll see you

outside.”

Alex waved for the waitress as Caitlin slid from the booth and

walked away. When she finally waddled over, he handed her thirty

dollars, then turned to walk toward the restrooms and the exit. There

was some sort of fuss at the door. As he got closer, it faded to the outside

and he walked into the men’s room behind a biker in full black

leather regalia. When he stepped back into the hallway, Caitlin was

not there. He felt a faint tug of alarm. He pushed the door to the

women’s room partly opened and said loudly, “Caitlin, you okay?”

There was no answer. He stepped partway inside. There were two

women at the sinks, but no Caitlin. He ducked to look under the toilet

stall doors. No feet. He could feel the familiar sensation of adrenaline

rushing into his body.

“You looking for a tall blonde in a suit? A looker?” one of the

women asked, as she glanced at him in the mirror.

“Yes. You see her?” he said.

“She left a couple of minutes ago with a bunch of bikers,” she said.

“Didn’t seem real happy about it.”

Alex spun and raced outside. The street was empty except for one

Harley at the curb. Just then the biker from the john hurried out,

pulling keys from his pocket and moving to his machine, a cigarette

hanging from the corner of his mouth.

Alex walked over to the biker, and just as he looked up, Cuchulain

grabbed the man’s nose between the knuckles of his index and middle

fingers and twisted sharply, breaking it. He dropped his hand and

snatched the cigarette from the man’s mouth, as he grabbed the front

of his shirt, rushed him to the outside wall of the bar, and banged his

back against the old bricks, hard.

“Where did they take the girl?” Cuchulain demanded.

The biker sprayed blood on him as he spoke. “Fuck you, asshole.”

“I don’t have a lot of time,” Alex snarled. He pushed the lit end of

the cigarette into the man’s cheek for a second, and the smell of burnt

flesh filled the air. When the scream ended, he pushed the cigarette

within an eighth inch of the biker’s eye, singeing the eyelashes from

the lid. “You’ll be blind in ten seconds if you don’t tell me, then I’ll

dig around in the sockets. Believe it.”

The biker was suddenly aware that his feet were not touching the

ground; he was being held in the air against the wall with one hand

while the other held the cigarette. His cheek felt on fire and urine

was burning down his right leg. He quickly blurted the address.

Alex slapped him on the forehead with the heel of his hand, bouncing the

biker’s head against the wall; the cigarette fluttered to the sidewalk.

Cuchulain grabbed the keys from the hand of the falling, unconscious

man and jumped onto the motorcycle, kicked it to life, and

accelerated down the street, necktie flapping wildly behind him.

The cooling motorcycle engines were still ticking when Alex

jumped from the bike and ran to the door, just as a roar of approval

and laughter went up from inside. A large man in a black T-shirt and

dirty jeans stepped in front of him, blocking his way as he stuck a

hand in Alex’s chest.

“Beat it, asshole,” he said. “This is a private club.”

Cuchulain grabbed the hand with his left, just below the wrist,

then gave it a hard snap up and out, breaking the wrist, as he stepped

under the raised arm and drove his right elbow down and back into

the guard’s lower back, just above the belt on his right side, then

again. Cuchulain reached down quickly, and pulled the man’s thighs

back from just above the knees so that his face was driven to the pavement

with a resounding thunk. As Cuchulain reached for the door,

he snapped a kick into the man’s left ear.

The door was unlocked and Cuchulain stepped inside. O’Connor was being held in a chair by two men, bare breasts exposed, while Billy, the leader, had his penis out

from the fly of his dirty Levi’s, four inches from her terrified, furious

face.

“Hey, whoa!” Alex yelled.

The room went quiet as heads snapped to see the intruder. Billy’s

face lit up in a delighted grin.

“Well, if ain’t the fuckin’ pansy. This is my lucky day! You can

referee a gangbang—me first. You know, pick out who gets to fuck

her next, make sure no one goes twice before everyone goes once, and

all that shit. By tomorrow we’ll be starting to wear out, and might

even give you a little. But first I want a little blowjob from Blondie. I

sort of promised it to my buddy here,” he leered, pulling the foreskin

up and back. “If she bites me, I’ll just knock her teeth out and try

again.”

“I don’t think so,” Alex said loudly. “That would be dumb. There

will be cops everywhere, and you guys are in enough trouble already.

For what?” He looked around at the gang, assessing them. He quickly

settled on a small, wiry man with still eyes and a telltale easy balance.

He knew the type.

Cuchulain eased toward him and spoke again. “I’ll tell you what.

You guys are supposed to be the baddest asses in New York. What if

I arm wrestle two of you at once for the girl? If you win, you keep the

girl and no cops. If I win, we walk. It would save you a ton of hassle

with the cops. You know I can’t beat two of you, so why not? I gotta

do something! Deal?”

Ignoring the others, he looked steadily at the small, quiet man,

who looked around and then said, “What if we all fuck her, beat the

living shit out of you, and toss you both in an alley somewhere? We’ll

just give you both some pills that Billy bought down in Mexico,

where you can’t remember shit about what happened lately. What

then? Cops? You won’t remember enough to make a decent witness.”

The room was quiet as the other bikers turned to look at Alex.

“No, slick. You get me,” Alex said coldly.

The small man felt a surge of recognition and imminent danger.

The quiet eyes moved over Cuchulain again, assessing him, noting

the familiar combat balance, feeling himself sink involuntarily

into a defensive posture as cold hostility oozed from Cuchulain. The

flesh on the outside edges of Cuchulain’s eyes began to bunch and

extend, giving him the facial cast of a hooded cobra. Breath whistled

loudly from his nostrils. The small man pulled up his right sleeve

and bared a veined, muscular forearm. The distinctive beer can logo

of the Navy Seals was tattooed on the inner arm, starting to fade, but

unmistakable.

“I used to be in the navy. The name’s Dodd. Do I know you?”

Alex smiled coldly. “I need something from my right pocket,

okay?”

Dodd reached behind his vest and swung out a small, stainless

steel automatic. He clicked the safety off, thumbed the hammer back,

and pointed the pistol directly at Alex’s navel. “Do it very slowly.”

Cuchulain reached slowly into his right trouser pocket and pulled

out a half-dollar coin. He offered it to the small man.

Dodd nodded in recognition, lowered the pistol, and said, “No. I

heard about this. I just gotta see it.”

Alex held the half-dollar in front of him, at eye height, showing

it to the crowd. Then he positioned his thumb on the bottom of the

coin and his middle and index finger on the top. He began to squeeze.

As he increased the pressure, veins swelled across his hand, and the

skin pad between his thumb and forefinger humped slowly up like a

ragged tumor. The room was still, except for the noise of Cuchulain’s

breathing. The coin began to bend, then slowly fold.Cuchulain’s hand was now quivering visibly, and his forearm hadswollen to stretch tight his suit jacket sleeve. Then the coin folded in half.

“Jeeesus Christ!” one of the bikers exclaimed softly.

Cuchulain casually flipped the folded coin at Dodd’s right shoulder

and shifted his weight toward him. The pistol came back up as

Dodd snatched the coin out of the air with his left hand.

“Nice try,” he said. “But I still got it. And I still got you. But I

know who you are.”

Alex waited.

“I’m tempted,” Dodd said. “You know we can’t just let you go.

What happens if we just waste you now? No fuss. You know I got

you, don’t you? And there’s twenty of us.”

Cuchulain nodded. “You have me. I might not even get you. But

I probably would. Probably Billy too, and three or four others when I

take your gun. For sure I wouldn’t get all of you.”

Dodd smiled faintly. “And?”

“And you get everyone here dead. Fast. No cops. No jury. Just

dead. Probably more than a bit of pain for you, if it’s convenient. But

dead.”

“By?” Dodd asked.

Cuchulain smiled. Now he had Dodd. “The Horse, Jerome

Masterson, lives in town here,” he said. “You know about him and

me, and the folks that the two of us know well. Lieutenant Elliot is

here too. He owes me from a Middle East operation. You just might

know him.”

Dodd shifted as memory rushed in. “Yeah, Lebanon. You saved

his ass. I missed that one. Lieutenant Elliot, huh? He ain’t no prize;

he’s meaner than a fuckin’ cottonmouth.” He looked around at the

gang. They were getting restless and stealing glances at Caitlin’s bare

breasts, thinking about their turns.

“Okay, I’m in,” he said softly to Cuchulain. “But I don’t think

they’re going to buy it—won’t believe me. We may have to kill

some—probably will. Shit!” He raised his eyebrows in a question.

“Try to sell us walking. If it won’t go, sell the arm wrestling.

Lacking that, I’ll take the Colt from the guy behind you and we’ll

nail eight or ten. After I kill Billy, go to one knee and work from the

right. Head shots. Killing a few more should end it, and the cops

will be here by then. That should end it. I’ll handle the mess. Anyone

looking for you?”

“The cops in a few cities have my prints and would like to find

me. Same with DEA. You sure about the arm wrestling? There’s some

big fuckers here, and I don’t want the shooting to start.”

Cuchulain nodded. “Sell it.”

Dodd shifted back slightly, turning to the group, keeping his

right arm hanging down and slightly behind him.

“Listen up, guys!” he said. “I know about this guy. A lot of Seals

say that he’s the baddest motherfucker that ever lived, and you guys

know there’s a bunch of mean motherfuckers among us. He is truly

a badass.”

Alex stepped back a little, as he chose his target if the balloon

went up. He’d need a gun and shifted slightly toward a fat, bearded

man with the checkered wooden grips of a Colt .45 automatic sticking

up from his belt. The hammer was down and the thumb safety

on; Alex would have the gun and take out his throat before the man

could ever get his gun into action.

“Our lives won’t be worth a shit if we don’t let him and her go,”

Dodd said. “Trust me on that. And if we kill him, ten or fifteen bodaciously

bad guys are coming for us. Gloves off. They wouldn’t dream

of using their fists if they could easier shoot or knife you in the back.

They’ll have machine guns, explosives, sniper rifles—all that shit.

It won’t be pretty, and none of us will live through it. For sloppy

sevenths on a piece of ass? And can you imagine the fucking cops?

They’re already like flies on shit around here!”

“That’s bullshit!” Billy bellowed. “I told her what I was going to

do and I’m gonna do it! This is prime pussy, and that pansy don’t look

so bad to me. If I wasn’t fucked up from spilling my bike the other

day, I’d take him myself. You don’t run this fuckin’ gang, Dodd, I

do!”

Dodd sighed as some of the men nodded at Billy’s speech. “Look,

Billy, there’s a bunch of us that don’t want to see the cops or the feds

up close. You’re left handed. Why don’t you arm wrestle him for it?

You’re messed up for a fight, but there’s nothing wrong with your left

arm. Besides, no one has ever beaten you but Bubba, and no one beats

Bubba. We’re getting enough shit from the cops already. It wouldn’t

be good for business.”

Billy looked startled, and then the ends of his lips curled up in a

cruel, wolfish smile. “Fuck that! He said he wants two at once, and I

want the girl. He gets Bubba and Kevin while me and One-Eye take

a rest so’s we have lots of energy for later. Whichever one slams the

pansy’s arm down first gets seconds on the pussy after me. The loser

gets the second blow job.”

Dodd took control quickly. “Deal! Let’s get a table cleared and

some chairs over here.”

Alex jerked his tie down and unbuttoned the top three buttons on

his shirt, giving him access to the throwing knife that always hung

at his back, just below his collar. If things went bad, Billy would find

himself with it buried in his throat. Cuchulain pulled his jacket off

and threw it over a chair backed to the wall and stood, casually rolling

his shirtsleeves, waiting and assessing the crowd for the ones who

could be trouble. Caitlin watched him, her eyes wide and her jaw

hanging slack, oblivious of her naked breasts.

Alex moved his chair across the wall to the table and waited.

Bubba and Kevin brought out chairs and sat down, grinning at

Cuchulain. Bubba had long, shaggy hair and a ragged beard, tangled

with the remnants of the past few days’ meals. He was well over six

feet and enormously fat, probably weighing upward of three hundred

pounds. He put a huge arm on the table, hawked his throat, and spat

a brownish wad of phlegm on Alex’s shirt, just splattering the edge

of his tie. There was a large tattoo on the inside of Bubba’s huge forearm

that spelled out “Eat Shit!” in Old English letters. Kevin was a

bodybuilder, and a big one. He had acne and his hair was sparse, but

steroids had given him enviable bulk.

Alex dropped into the chair and put his upper arms on the table,

with his veined and pulsing forearms vertical and shoulder width

apart. Then he began to focus his energy. He felt his local awareness

fade as he focused his conscious being into a core of energy just

beneath his navel, feeling as if each molecule of his being was rushing

to one central repository, then waiting to be dispatched. The sound of

his breath whistled even louder through his nose.

“Okay,” Dodd said. “Get them lined up, and I’m going to count

to three. On three, go for it.”

Alex was barely aware as Kevin and Bubba lined up. As they each

clasped a hand and bore down with their grip, Cuchulain was only

peripherally aware that he was countering their force. He heard Dodd

at a distance, say, “One, two…” Cuchulain released his energy just

before Dodd said “three,” driving every ounce of his being into his

hands in a single, furious contraction. He felt both their hands collapse,

then yield under his sudden onslaught; the sound of snapping

bones could be heard in the room. Alex slammed both their hands

across his chest to the table and stood, then casually grabbed Bubba

by the front of his hair and smashed his face into the table, twice. It

had taken less than ten seconds. He folded his jacket over his arm.

“I think we will be leaving now, gentlemen,” he said, and turned

toward Caitlin.

“You cheated,” one biker yelled. “You went before three!”

“Sit down, asshole,” Cuchulain said coldly. “You go on three and

I’ll go on six. Then I’ll rip your arm off at the shoulder.”

“Fuck you,” the biker yelled. “Why don’t you just get the hell out

of here?”

Alex nodded and walked swiftly toward Caitlin. The gang was

momentarily stunned by the vision of Kevin and Bubba still at the

table, each holding a mangled hand, moaning softly as the swelling

started and blood began to pool around Bubba’s twitching face.

“Bullshit!” Billy yelled as he stepped in front of Cuchulain, pulling

his fist back. Cuchulain stepped in quickly and used his huge

neck to slam his forehead into Billy’s nose and eyes; he felt nose and

cheekbones collapse and eye sockets crack and crumble an instant

later. The web of his left hand slammed into Billy’s Adam’s apple and

his thumb closed on the carotid artery, shutting off the blood supply

to his brain. Cuchulain drove his right hand deep into Billy’s crotch,

squeezing his penis and testicles through his jeans. He began to rip,

focusing on delivering all the power he could generate. The sound of

denim tearing pierced the silent room.

As Alex felt resistance there collapse, he began to twist as he

squeezed, feeling flesh and tendons ripping and releasing. As Billy

lost consciousness, Cuchulain bent his knees to lower him to the floor,

his head up as he watched the gang. When he stood, he was holding

Billy’s pistol. The snap of the safety being released by Cuchulain’s

right thumb was eerily loud in the room. He worked the slide on the

automatic once, and a cartridge tumbled noisily across the dirty floor.

He turned and reached for Caitlin, looking coldly at the two men

holding her, who stepped back quickly. Cuchulain draped his jacket

over her shoulders and led her to the door. He nodded at Dodd just

before he stepped out and pulled the door closed.
Outside, Cuchulain stepped hard on the inert guard’s neck as

he grabbed Caitlin’s arm and guided her. He engaged the safety on

Billy’s pistol and slid it behind his belt at the small of his back. They

were almost at a run as they left the alley and moved down the street

and around the corner, Cuchulain waving to an approaching cab with

its “on duty” light on. He opened the door and pushed her inside,

almost roughly, then moved in beside her. He gave the cabbie his

home address, then put his arm around Caitlin. She was already shaking,

and her teeth were beginning to chatter.

“Just take it easy,” he said. “It’s over now. We’re going to my

place.”

“No, I want to go back to my room. I want to be alone!”

Cuchulain shook his head and turned to her on the ragged seat
.

“Listen to me, Caitlin. This is the worst possible time for you to be

alone. You could go into shock. Someone has to keep an eye on you,

and that’s going to be me. We’re going to my place.”

“I am in no mood for romance, Cuchulain. Okay?” she chattered.

“I promise,” he said.

They took the elevator to his apartment. It was sparsely but expensively

furnished, with the look of a place done by a decorator and seldom

touched since. The exception was two floor-to-ceiling bookcases

full of volumes and a small desk that held a dual computer setup with

neatly stacked papers around it. A large oil painting on the living

room wall depicted a group of fishermen in a traditional boat, pulling

in nets at sunrise under the shaded mass of Gibraltar. On the stand

beside a reclining reading chair was a worn leather-bound copy of the

Quran with a yellowed ivory bookmark placed partway through.

Cuchulain led her to the couch and said, “I’ll get some blankets

and make some tea. Tea’s good in this situation. Maybe a drink later.”

She wrapped her arms around herself, shivering. “A drink now! A

big drink!”

He walked quickly to the bedroom and came back with two wool

blankets and a towel. He wrapped the blankets around her, tucking

them tight, then smoothed the towel across her lap, pushing a little

dent in the middle. Caitlin seemed a little startled and curious by the

towel, but said nothing.

“I’ll get the drinks,” Alex said.

He came back with two glasses of cognac and the bottle. “Sip

this,” he said, handing her one glass with a light portion of cognac

poured into it. He sat beside her and sipped on his own glass, waiting

for her to give him a hint as to how to distract her from the evening’s

events. Caitlin tipped up her glass and drained it, then shuddered. “Oh,

my God, Alex. I’m still terrified,” she said, shaking. “I’ve never been

that afraid before, or that furious. I’m also sorry I didn’t kick that

asshole in the balls as we walked out! That was just awful! I hate that

those animals exist.”

“They’ve been around since the beginning, Caitlin. Society just

doesn’t let them out that often, at least in this country,” Alex said,

happy she had picked a topic familiar to him. “More of them were

in Nazi Germany, Kosovo, and Bosnia-Herzegovina lately than elsewhere,

but they’re always around. There’s still a bunch in the Middle

East.”

“With all of our technology and power, why can’t we just get rid

of people like that?” Caitlin fumed.

“I’ve thought a lot about that,” Alex said. “I don’t know of a politician,

alive or dead, that could be trusted with the power to accomplish

that, if even we could do it. Politicians are, by my definition,

megalomaniacs to some degree, and most of them care only about

money and votes. Those bikers tonight were one form of villain, but

religious fanatics are worse, because they think they can both interpret

and enforce the word and the will of God—to their personal

benefit, of course. I think we should just kill the leaders of those

sociopaths, one by one. Their followers will disappear with no piper

to follow.”

Caitlin snorted. “I don’t think they know the first thing about

God, or what she thinks!” she said, throwing up suddenly, and barely

catching the foul mass in the towel on her lap.

“Sorry,” she said. “That came from nowhere. Gross!”

Cuchulain held his hands in front of her so she could see them

shaking. “It’s part of the adrenaline depletion. Try to relax and take

your mind away from tonight. It will make things seem more normal,

and you’ll recover faster. It happens to everyone. This is what

happens when you’re scared, and I was scared too.”

He sat for a few seconds sipping his drink, then started to push

the conversation back to something distracting. “I sometimes have

nightmares about Torquemada returning in modern form,” he said.

“People should study the Spanish Inquisition to see what happens

when vast power is granted to religious fanatics. It’s a shame no one

killed him early.”

“So, if you’ve thought about this a lot, what’s the right answer?”she asked, studying him, still shaking.

“Darned if I know,” he chuckled. “I guess if I’ve reached any tentative

conclusion at all, it’s that we should worry about our own country

first, and then the others—and pick off the bad guys’ leaders, one

at a time. Without us the world could once again become a real cesspool—

and quickly. It’s happening slowly anyhow, it seems to me.”

The images of the evening suddenly came back to Caitlin. She

turned quickly to Cuchulain, the blanket falling from her shoulders.

She pulled his jacket around her ripped blouse. “When you came

through that door, I was so proud of you for coming in there to defend

me from those animals, but I knew you were going to be hurt very

badly, if not killed. I don’t even want to think about all of those fucking

vermin above me, humping and pumping, one after the other.

How did you know what to do? Your behavior seemed so bizarre, but

it worked!”

He sat for a second and took another sip of his cognac. “Bizarre

behavior freaks people out and limits what they think they can do.

I stunned them with it until I lucked out enough to find a guy who

knew me a little; my face change helps to create bizarre when I’m

excited.”

Caitlin sat silent for several moments, wrapping the blanket more

tightly around her shoulders, still shivering. “Yes, you looked like a

fucking snake, and I hate snakes! But how did he know you? Who are

you that he said, and I quote, ‘He is the baddest motherfucker in the

whole world’?”

Alex sat silent for a while, then said, “I was an active marine for

quite a while—eight years, in fact. I told you about it, briefly. I was

good at it. Dodd had been a Navy Seal, and he just knew me, or knew

about me. I have unusually strong hands, as you saw, and that kind of

word gets around.”

She sat thinking for a while longer, as the shivering subsided. She

took the bottle from the table, poured another full glass of cognac,

and drank half of it.

“I thought I was going to be humiliated and debased. I was terrified—

I was consumed with fury! I wanted so badly to kill them, but

had no way to do it. They are such a bunch of worthless pigs! And

then you came in—and I was afraid for you. But I didn’t need to be,

did I Alex? That reptilian little man was afraid of you, wasn’t he? You

had it under control, didn’t you?”

Alex sighed, and said, “No, Caitlin. I didn’t have it under control.

I just worked with what I had, and I got lucky. But thank you

for being afraid for me. It could have gotten very ugly, very quickly.”

“And that little man wasn’t afraid of you?”

“He was wary, not afraid. He had heard about me when he was a

Seal. Because of what he had heard, he believed what I told him, and

didn’t like the odds.”

“Jesus Christ!” she said. “You told him Brooks Elliot and some

horse person would kill them all if they didn’t let us go. And he

believed you! Was it true?”

Alex gave the shrug she had seen before. “Who knows? They

probably would have tried, and I can’t imagine that a bunch of hoods

like that would have stood much of a chance against them. Dodd

knew that.”

“Who the hell are you, Cuchulain? You force your way into my

life, and I think that you’re a nice, good-natured guy with a great

body and a good mind, who happens to own a bunch of my stock.

And God, I was worried you were a fucking wimp! You’re clearly a

lot more than that, and a lot of what you seem to be is disturbing to

me. I didn’t even know that people like you existed; you were like an

animal, and your face got spooky—not that I wasn’t glad to have you

there tonight, but God, you’re not what I thought. You were probably

some kind of killer or something, trained by the government,

and Brooks was probably one too. Again, who the hell are you?”

And how did you get this way? she asked herself.

Continued….

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