For fans of Tom Clancy, Brad Thor and Vince Flynn—a no-holds-barred, pulse-pounding thriller of conspiracy, assassination and deception by Wall Street Journal bestselling author Steven Konkoly.
A FORMER COVERT OPERATIVE WILL DO ANYTHING TO PROTECT HIS DARKEST SECRETS...
Daniel Petrovich, formerly part of the Department of Defense's infamous Black Flag Program, protects a secret buried in the deepest vaults of the Pentagon. Blackmailed into executing one final mission for his previous commanding officer, Daniel's carefully constructed "life" rapidly disintegrates into a relentless federal manhunt--and a "24-style" race against the clock to suppress the shocking truth about his past. To survive, he'll release the darkest side of his concealed identity. A dark side with few boundaries--and even fewer loyalties.
Black Flagged lays the foundation for a gritty, high-octane series exploring the serpentine link between covert operations and government agency politics.
THE BLACK FLAGGED SERIES:
Book 1: Black Flagged Alpha
Book 2: Black Flagged Redux
Book 3: Black Flagged Apex
Book 4: Black Flagged Vektor
Book 5: Black Flagged Omega
Steven's novels are recommended for fans of Brad Thor's Scot Harvath, Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp, Brad Taylor's Pike Logan, Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne, L.T. Ryan's Jack Noble, C.G. Cooper's Daniel Briggs, Daniel Silva's Gabriel Allon and Mark Greaney's Gray Man.
Release date: January 9, 2014
Publisher: Stribling Media
Print pages: 287
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Alpha: A Black Flagged Thriller
Daniel sat at a brushed metal, modernist workstation in his expanded cubicle, staring blankly at a sleek flat-screen monitor. An MBA from Boston University's School of Management had earned him a little extra space in one of the outer cubicles and a partial view of the tall pine trees behind the building's rear parking lot. His one-hundred-square-foot home at Zenith Semiconductor was as close to the "corner office" as modern workplace design theory allowed, and he had fellow MBAs like himself to thank for it. At least his position entitled him to a frosted glass "privacy door," which he could slide shut to emphasize his desire to remain undisturbed. Not that it really helped.
The door had only been closed for fifteen minutes, and he'd already counted at least five lingering shadows behind the translucent glass. Shadows that would continue to circle until he opened the door. Daniel continued to gaze unproductively at the market analysis presentation on the screen, unmotivated to dig into its digital contents. His indoor soccer team pulled the late slot last night, and he still hadn't recovered from the three-hour sleep deficit. The phone rang.
"I almost escaped," he muttered, donning his headset and pressing a button on the gray desk phone. "Daniel Petrovich."
"Daniel, it's Sandy. I have a call for you from Azore Market Solutions."
"Do you know who it is?" Daniel said, surprised to be hearing from Azore so soon.
"They didn't say," Sandy said, one of the junior assistants assigned to the marketing department. "Just that they needed to talk with you immediately."
He had contracted with Azore Market Solutions to provide raw data for an overseas regional marketing analysis, but didn't expect to hear from them for another month. Daniel usually conducted business with them via e-mail, so he was slightly concerned about the call. If Azore couldn't deliver the data, he'd have to start the process from scratch, which would put Zenith's South American market expansion efforts behind schedule—and his job at risk.
"All right. Put whoever it is through. And Sandy…would you please ask who's on the line next time? I don't know if I'm talking to the CEO or a janitor," he lamented.
"I don't think it's the janitor, but I'm not sure. Do you want me to ask who it is before I put the call through?"
"No, don't worry about it this time," he said, pressing the button to connect the call.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I was hoping to reach Marko Resja," said a male voice, betraying no emotion.
His brain switched over to a long dormant mode, and he ceased to function as Zenith Semiconductor's Emerging Markets' Analytical Lead. Daniel stood up slowly, glancing over the vast sea of cubicle tops.
"I'm not in the building, so you can sit back down," the voice said.
Daniel remained standing and opened his cubicle door.
"Are you sitting?"
"I am," Petrovich replied.
"That's better. Do I have your attention?" the voice said, confirming that Daniel was not under direct surveillance.
"You never lost it," he said, activating the "wander" function of his headset.
As long as he remained on the third floor of Building A, his headset would function without a hard-wire connection, which might give him a slight head start against whatever was coming his way. He opened the top drawer of his desk, pocketed his keys and cell phone, and started to walk toward the nearest staircase.
"The general has a proposal for you," the voice said.
"I'll be sure to look him up the next time I'm in the D.C. area," Daniel said, approaching the door to the stairwell.
"This proposal is extremely time sensitive."
He wrapped his hands around the staircase door handle. "I don't really care."
"He thought you might say that. He told me to tell you that 'he knows everything.'"
"I'm still not impressed," Petrovich said.
"Zorana Zekulic," the voice uttered.
Daniel paused for a few seconds. Sanderson hadn't bothered him much since they parted ways. A Christmas card one year, a birthday card the next. Just a friendly reminder that the general was still out there. Using Zorana's name was more than just a nudge. It was more like poking him with a knife.
"Where do we meet?"
"Starbucks. A few blocks from your building. Five minutes."
"No good. I'm a regular there. I'll meet you in Designer Grinds at Northgate Plaza," Daniel countered.
"Where is that?" the voice said.
"Figure it out," Daniel said and disconnected the call.
He stuffed the headset in a trash bin by the door and sprinted down three flights of stairs, opening the door to the lobby and walking briskly toward the rear security station.
"No need to get up, Harry. I'm just running a quick errand at Target before I forget. I have a pick-up soccer game after work, and if I don't do this now, it'll never get done."
The guard eased back into his chair, barely turning his head far enough to watch Daniel move swiftly through the sliding door. Daniel resisted breaking into a full sprint toward his BMW 545i sedan, which sat three rows deep in the lot. The sight of someone sprinting in the parking lot was sure to attract the wrong kind of attention—especially in the middle of the afternoon.
He fished a ring of keys out of his front pocket and pressed the ignition button on his key fob. The sedan's powerful 325 HP engine roared to life and settled into a low hum. Seconds later, Daniel screeched out of the parking lot, headed for the nearest Maine Turnpike entrance.
James Parker tossed the burner cell phone onto the passenger seat and began to program the dashboard-mounted GPS system as if his life depended on it—which it did. After pushing several buttons, he located the Designer Grinds store in Northgate and activated the navigator, which displayed the shortest, but not the quickest, route to the coffee shop. He pulled his Grand Cherokee out of the parking lot and wove through traffic on his way to Congress Street.
Roughly one minute after speeding out of the parking lot, his SUV passed the entrance to the Zenith Semiconductor Industrial Complex. A few weeks earlier he might have spotted Daniel, but May had unleashed thick rows of brilliant yellow Forsythia bushes, which completely obscured his view of the complex's ground level. He pressed the accelerator and shot toward Maine Mall Road. The GPS unit announced he would "arrive at his destination in thirteen minutes."
Daniel arrived at the Northgate center ten minutes later and parked his car in the Sea Coast Credit Union parking lot adjacent to the strip mall. Scanning every direction, he couldn't conceptualize any way for his adversary to spot the car from the three street approaches to Designer Grinds. Reaching into the back seat, he grabbed a dark blue, zippered, nylon jacket and a dirty Red Sox ball cap. A compact Sig Sauer pistol materialized from a concealed holster under the driver's seat and disappeared into the rear belt line of his dark brown wool pants. Before jogging across the parking lot, he donned the jacket to completely conceal the pistol.
He passed the grocery store entrance at the corner of the strip mall and studied his surroundings, spotting three open parking spaces in front of the coffee shop. A dozen additional spaces sat unoccupied among the three rows of parking available further back from the storefronts. Daniel didn't have much time to position himself, so he trusted his instincts and walked briskly into the field of cars directly across from Designer Grinds.
Thousands of possibilities, variables, and scenarios raced through his head, as he searched for an unlocked car in the furthest row away from Designer Grinds. After checking several vehicles, he found an unlocked sedan and slipped into the back seat.
Parker veered his SUV left at the split of Auburn Street and Washington Avenue, and spotted the traffic signal that marked the front entrance to the Northgate shopping center. His stomach knotted, and he tried for the hundredth time since arriving in Portland to stop grinding his teeth. He'd seen enough of the Petrovich file to warrant the nervous response.
After stopping at the red light, he scanned the parking lot in front of the coffee shop for a BMW, though he was reasonably certain that he'd beaten Petrovich to the shopping center. His only goal had been to get into Designer Grinds alive, where, in front of witnesses, Parker would at least have a brief opportunity to explain that he knew nothing about Zorana Zekulic. The general had made it clear that this would be the most pressing business on the table when he met Petrovich, and that his survival would depend on it.
The light turned green, and Parker sat for a few seconds, momentarily paralyzed. A horn jarred him back to reality, and he pulled into the plaza, cruising slowly while he searched for the BMW.
Daniel spotted the Cherokee immediately thanks to an impatient Mainer. Three short horn blasts drew his attention to the front entrance of the parking lot, where even the most unobservant field agent could spot Parker craning his neck in every direction as he cruised past the grocery store.
He peeked through the Accord's headrest and watched the Cherokee drive past the coffee shop and turn into the second row of cars. As the SUV headed in his direction, one row away, Daniel slid across the back seat and unlocked the passenger door. Hand on the door handle; he waited for the Cherokee to stop.
The driver guided the SUV into a parking space facing Designer Grinds, and Daniel slid out of the back seat of the sedan. Staying low, he sprinted from one row of cars to the next, centering himself on the back of the Cherokee to avoid detection in either of the Cherokee's side mirrors. When the doors clicked, indicating they had been unlocked, Daniel opened the rear driver’s side door and pressed the barrel of his pistol to the back of the man's head.
"Hands up on the dashboard above the radio. Do not turn your head. Understood?"
Daniel closed the door, settling into the back seat and easing the pistol away from the man’s head. The guy nodded once and carefully placed his hands palms down on the dashboard.
"I'll ask you some questions. If I don't like the answers, all the general's horses and all the general's men, won't be able to put you back together again. Understood?" Daniel said, and the man nodded once more.
"I assume you've read some kind of file regarding my previous line of work?"
"Yes, but I don't know anything about the name I mentioned earlier."
"Which name?" Daniel said, curious if he'd repeat it.
"Zorana. The general told me to use this name if I didn't think you would meet with me."
"Well, the general must not like you very much, because he knows damn well I won't entertain any of his proposals…and giving you that name was a potential death sentence. How well do you know General Sanderson?"
"I've been working directly under General Sanderson for two years."
"He's not a general any more. Pissed on too many people. Important people. How did you get stuck with him?"
"We met in Afghanistan before he retired," he said.
"Retired? Doesn't sound like he retired."
"He didn't. That's why I'm here."
"What do you know about Zorana Zekulic?" Daniel whispered and nudging the pistol into the base of his skull.
The man cleared his throat. "Absolutely nothing beyond the name. The general said my life would depend on me telling you that right away."
"And you still showed up?" Daniel said, pulling the pistol back, but keeping it aimed at the back of Parker's seat.
"I didn't really have much of a choice."
"That's the problem with General Sanderson. He doesn't like for any of his people to get comfortable with the concept of free will, which is why we parted ways long ago. I'm done with your general, Mr…?"
"Parker. James Parker. Can we talk about this over some coffee? The mission is critically important to our work and national security. You might change your mind."
"I'll listen, but I need you to know that I won't hesitate to kill you in public. Are you armed?"
"I have a small folding knife in my right front pocket."
"I expect to hear that knife clatter on the pavement as soon as we start walking. You can pick it up later, if it's still there. Coffee’s on you. Fair?"
"Fair," Parker said, clearly relieved.
A few minutes later, Parker placed two cappuccinos on the table and took a seat across from Daniel, who sat against the back wall, one hand hidden under the table. Daniel examined him for a few seconds. Parker had deep blue eyes and thick, black hair, closely cropped for a neat, trimmed impression. Not short enough to immediately betray a military background, but clearly the preferred look for someone not completely comfortable with civilian life.
His outfit matched the haircut: khakis, casual blue dress shirt with no tie, and a dark blue blazer. Business casual for the ex-military officer. He looked lean and slightly muscular. Petrovich suspected that he had been a senior army captain or possibly a major.
"Special Forces in Afghanistan?" Daniel said and took a sip of steaming hot cappuccino.
"Navy SEAL platoon commander. I met General Sanderson at Forward Operating Base Anaconda in 2004. He showed a lot of interest in the spec ops guys operating out of the Korangal Valley. That was before we started sticking outposts up there. Fucking Wild West. We stayed in touch, and he offered me a job as a security consultant when I got out."
"So what's in the bag, Mr. Navy SEAL?"
"Mission specifics. Untraceable weapon," he responded, glancing around secretively as he spoke.
Daniel controlled the tension evoked by the sudden realization that Parker hadn’t been forthcoming, and only slightly tightened his grip on the pistol hidden under the table.
"I thought I said no weapons," Petrovich said.
"The case is locked, and I don't have the combination. I have a phone number for you to call, which is programmed to respond to your cell phone number. You get the combo from a recording. I know who the target is and all of the mission details, but Sanderson did not want me to have access to the contents of the briefcase. I don't ask questions."
"What's the phone number?" Petrovich said, removing his cell phone from one of the inside pockets of his jacket.
"You're going to open the case here?" Parker asked.
Petrovich leaned across and whispered, "You're goddamn right I am. I don't need this case exploding inside my car…and if I don't like the contents, I don't want to make another trip to return it. The number, please."
Parker recited the number as Daniel dialed. The call lasted less than thirty seconds before Daniel abruptly snapped the phone closed. He leaned over the left side of the table to look at the nylon case.
"May I?" Daniel said.
"The case is yours."
Daniel lifted the case off the floor and placed it in his lap, backing his chair up flush against the wall to give him room to maneuver if this turned out to be a trap. He dialed the four-digit combination and opened the case, finding a pistol and four loaded 9mm magazines in the padded compartment normally reserved for a laptop computer. A thick manila envelope lay in the main part of the briefcase. He removed the hefty packet and set the briefcase on the floor next to his chair.
"Do you have to look at this here?" Parker said, glancing nervously over his shoulder at two women who occupied brown leather chairs several tables away.
"You need to relax. I didn't drag the gun out, did I?"
Parker didn't look relieved by his response and continued to look over his shoulder while Daniel opened the larger packet. Daniel extracted the contents and placed them on the table next to his coffee. The top item was a picture.
"I suppose this gentleman needs to take a permanent vacation?"
"Something like that. His name is…"
"I don't need to know his name. I assume the packet contains all of the information I'll need? Places of business, hours of work, gym, favorite bars…though I get the feeling this guy might not partake in the consumption of alcohol or bacon."
For the first time since Daniel placed a gun against his head, Parker cracked a smile.
"Ah, a sense of humor. I don't think the general likes those either," Daniel said.
"So, I'll track this guy down and find an opportunity, but I need to talk to your general personally, right now, or this whole thing is off."
"The general isn't available to talk right now. He went offline right before I arrived in Portland."
"Get him on the phone, or you're going to have to kill this guy yourself. I don't think this kind of work would suit you."
"I'll try, but I'm serious about…"
Daniel's cell phone interrupted Parker's sentence. Unknown number.
"Daniel Petrovich," he answered dryly, now pretty sure he was under surveillance. Another deception by Parker.
"Danny! It's been a while. Great to hear your voice."
"Well, you can play it back all day and night, I suppose," Daniel said.
"Newest technology on the streets. Turned Parker's cell phone into a bug without him knowing," General Sanderson said.
"Congratulations. I'm glad to know you didn't spend the Hadzic trust fund all in one place," Daniel said.
"I need you in on this operation, Daniel. We're sending a strong message to the Muslim fundamentalist movement here at home…"
"Are you fucking kidding me? Save that bullshit for the rest of your zealots. I'll take a look at the file. If I agree to do this…I don't want to hear from you again. Ever. Is that clear?"
"If that's what you want."
"It's what I always wanted, but here we are. I'll need a few days for reconnaissance…"
"I need this done tonight. Our timeline is set in stone," the general said.
Parker shifted in his seat uncomfortably, as if he sensed an immediate threat to his existence, which couldn't have been further from the truth. Daniel's brain worked like a perfect machine when under pressure, and his processors analyzed hundreds of solutions to his current dilemma within seconds. Killing Parker in a suburban Designer Grinds never passed through Daniel's neural connections. Petrovich knew that the general had the upper hand and that all paths led to the completion of the task outlined in the briefcase. It had been no accident that Parker arrived only hours before the mission's deadline.
"I'm done after this. You understand that, right?"
"I understand. I apologize for pulling out the trump card—"
"Apologies never suited you, General, and I don't believe it for one fucking second," Daniel said, shaking his head slowly.
"Whether you believe it or not, your actions will make a huge contribution to the war on terror, and—"
"Save the elevator speech for Parker. I have a long afternoon ahead of me. My slate is clean."
"Clean," General Sanderson said.
"I'm curious. How long have you known about her?"
"Do you remember one of the first things I told your training class? There's no such thing as a coincidence," Sanderson said and disconnected the call.
Petrovich set the phone down on the target dossier and glanced up at Parker. The former special operations soldier looked tense and ready to make a bad decision.
"Drink your coffee, Parker. You're making me nervous. I need a contact number in case I run into unforeseen circumstances," he said.
"You'll find instructions for that in the file. I'll need to collect the dossier and the gun when you're finished," he replied.
"I'll leave it all at the scene for you," said Daniel, slipping the file into the briefcase next to his chair. He collected his cell phone and picked up his coffee. "Don't bother getting up. Thanks for the coffee, by the way."
"My pleasure," Parker said.
Daniel left with the briefcase, checking over his shoulder once to make sure Parker stayed seated. He walked back to his car, secure in the thought that he would not have to play the counter-surveillance game this afternoon. The general was thorough to a fault. If Sanderson suspected his assassination plot had been compromised, he would have given Daniel some warning. Not for Daniel's safety or wellbeing, but to give Daniel the best possible shot at accomplishing the mission.
The outcome had always been the general's only true concern. As long as your usefulness always outweighed your burden, he could be unfailingly loyal. Daniel had learned this early and leveraged it throughout his assignment overseas. Even after years of training in the general’s program, too many “graduates” never quite grasped the concept. Most of those never returned. Their unmarked graves littered some of the most dangerous places in the world.
Daniel reached his car and deactivated the alarm system, which emitted two sharp chirps. Three low chirps would have indicated that someone or something had made contact with the car in his absence. The vibrational sensitivity of the system could detect someone leaning against the car, or even the slightest bump of an opening door. The alarm would only sound if someone tried to open one of the doors or forcefully hit the car.
He started the BMW and moved it to an empty row in the back of the parking lot, where he opened the case and pulled out the full file. He quickly thumbed through the documents, taking in all of the salient points. The general's operational files hadn't changed in years. Functional and easy to navigate, Daniel had a solid assessment of the job within minutes. A rough plan developed before he could shift gears and speed out of the parking lot. He had a lot to accomplish before soccer practice tonight.
Daniel checked his watch before opening the door to the house, determining that he was well within the time range of returning from soccer practice. He pressed the garage door button and stepped inside as the door motor hummed behind him.
"That you, Danny?" he heard from deep inside the house.
"Were you expecting someone else?" he yelled back, kicking off his running shoes onto the gray tile floor.
Daniel placed a dark blue gym bag down on a small white bench in the crowded mudroom.
Jessica appeared under the soft glow of the kitchen's pendant lighting and placed a book on the butcher-block island.
"Yeah, I keep bringing Thai food home for Antonio Banderas, but to no avail. You want some Thai food?" she said and ran both hands through long, dark brown hair, tying it with a black scrunchie she had kept hidden on one of her wrists.
"How do you think that makes me feel?" he said, stepping into the kitchen.
"You don't like Thai food anymore?" she asked, closing the distance between them.
Daniel took her hand and pulled her in tight, giving her a passionate kiss. Her arms wrapped around him, and she pressed her body against his. They kissed for several moments before Jess untangled herself.
"You…need a shower. How was soccer?" she asked.
"Not bad. We needed this practice badly. We got our asses handed to us last night. Did you eat?" he asked and opened the refrigerator.
"I was waiting for you. It's still bagged up in the fridge," she said.
He saw one large brown take-out bag and reached for it, but his hand swerved toward a corked bottle of white wine in the door.
"How about we both take a shower and bring this bottle along with us?" he asked, pulling the bottle out and shutting the door.
"Sure you're not biting off more than you can chew? Late game last night, extra practice today, late dinner. Can you handle it?" she teased and turned to walk toward the staircase.
"I can handle it," he said.
Sitting on the floor in front of the couch, Jess and Daniel finished the last of the Thai dinner and Riesling about an hour later. Two pillar candles burned low on the round coffee table, casting a flickering orange glow over plastic take-out containers and empty plates.
"That was great," Daniel said, leaning back into the couch. "This turned out to be the perfect night. Surprise take out, good wine, great sex. What's next? A massage for these sore legs?"
"Dream on, lover boy. This girl is done for the evening. I'll let you clean up down here while I get ready for bed. It's been a long day," she said, getting up.
Daniel didn't budge. "Long day is right," he whispered.
"Hey, do you have anything in your gym bag that needs washing? I can grab it on the way up," she said, heading toward the kitchen with her plate and wine glass.
Daniel popped up and rushed behind her into the kitchen. "No, I'll take care of it. Some two-week-old shorts in there. Not the kind of thing you want to deal with, trust me."
"Thanks for the warning. I'll be upstairs," Jess said.
Daniel walked over to the mudroom and listened for her footsteps on the creaky stairs. Once the bathroom door shut and the water started to run, he opened the gym bag and removed the briefcase. He needed to find a secure location to hide the briefcase until he had the time to properly dispose of its contents. The cellar door caught his attention.
FBI Headquarters, Washington, D.C.
Special Agent-in-Charge Ryan Sharpe replaced the desk phone and took a deep breath, exhaling slowly as he ran his hands through his thinning brown hair. He turned his head slightly and glanced out of his window onto 9th Street. The traffic had already thickened. A long ribbon of light blue stretched over the vast sea of buildings. The chaos in D.C. started too damn early. He could use just a little more time today to figure out exactly what had destroyed his three-year-long investigation.
A few minutes after one in the morning, Sharpe had received a call from Operation Support's duty section head with news that one of his red-flagged profiles had been murdered. When his cell phone rang again before he had even reached the bathroom, he knew this might be the shittiest day of his career. The second phone call confirmed his suspicions. Two of eight key targets in his ongoing investigation had been murdered within the span of a few hours. By the time his car passed through the security station at the J. Edgar Hoover Building, he had received six more calls. Task Force HYDRA was finished.
The damage done to his investigation was permanent and unrecoverable. All eight heads had been cut off at the same time, and he needed to quickly determine what had happened. He had solid evidence linking all of them to Al Qaeda's financing arm, and their sudden termination sounded an earth-shattering alarm. Sharpe didn't have long to come up with answers. A sharp knock at the door announced the arrival of his immediate assistant, Supervisory Special Agent Frank Mendoza, who stepped into his office and nodded.
"Everyone's ready. Need any coffee?" he said.
"I've already had three cups. I just got off the phone with Delgado," Sharpe said grimly.
"Shit. How high has the news gone?" said Mendoza.
"All the way to the president. Homeland raised the threat level to Orange until we can provide solid evidence that we're not on the brink of another 9/11. Obviously, the director is hot on this, so I wouldn't expect much breathing room today. We've been given top priority for resources."
He decided against mentioning the director's immediate concern that Task Force HYDRA had been compromised by a traitor. Sandra Delgado, his immediate superior, had kindly informed him that the Internal Affairs Department would quietly pursue this possibility from the sidelines, for now.
"I think we already commandeered half of the building," Mendoza said.
"Stand by to grab the other half. We'll be in the frying pan until we figure out what happened last night. Let's go."
He stood up from the desk and walked out of the office. Mendoza pulled the door shut and fell in behind him as they approached the door to his task force's operations center. He heard considerable chatter behind the door and paused for a second before opening it. The room fell silent when the door swung open, and Sharpe walked to a desk that had been reconfigured to serve as a makeshift podium. The air quality in the room had deteriorated significantly. Rank and humid, the room reeked of bad coffee and faint cologne. The building's air circulation system was unable to compete with a room stuffed to nearly four times its intended capacity.
He glanced behind him and saw that one of three enormous, side-by-side-mounted plasma-screen monitors showed a map of the East Coast. The map stretched from South Carolina to Maine and contained markers that indicated the location of each murder. Charleston, South Carolina; Virginia Beach, Virginia; Annapolis, Maryland; Long Island, New York; Manhattan, New York; Rye, New York; Newport, Rhode Island; Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Sharpe turned to face nearly sixty agents, hastily assembled hours ago to start unscrambling the mess.
"All right,” said Sharpe. “What do we have?"
A young special agent stepped forward with a few sheets of paper in his hands. "Sir, as you can see, we're dealing with what appears to be a coordinated strike on all eight of our key surveillance targets. Most of the murders appear—"
"Rob, are you going to tell me anything I don't already know?" Sharpe interrupted.
The young agent looked to his supervisory agent for support.
"I'm not trying to be an ass here, agent," Sharpe explained.
"I just don't have time for a recap of events. We need to move this investigation forward at a record pace, and I don't need to remind everyone here of the implications surrounding these murders.
"These guys," Sharpe continued, pointing at the screens behind him, "were conduits of financing for some extremely dangerous people. We need to figure out exactly why this coordinated attack occurred. The director is under increasing pressure from the White House, so you can imagine what it's going to be like for the task force as the day progresses. The primary concern is that we have another 9/11 imminent, and that Al Qaeda is cleaning house and cutting ties. This is our focus. Investigations, where do we stand at the different sites?"
A female agent sitting on the edge of one of the closest desks stood up. Her suit looked crisp, and her face appeared unaffected by the early wake up. She stood in stark contrast to several of the agents clustered near her as she spoke. "Sir, Supervisory Special Agent Olson. Agents from the closest field offices were dispatched a few hours ago to each site to assist local law enforcement in their initial assessment of the scene. I've taken reports from each site's lead agent. So far, we don't have any witnesses, and evidence appears scant. I think we'll start piecing this together once the sun is up, and we can take a hard look at each site. Start knocking on doors. We'll get this moving fast. I've also requested additional agents from other field offices within each region. I want to establish a second tier of FBI support at each site."
"Let's get a third tier in the works. I want to send a headquarters team to each site. Four agents minimum. Let's make sure we have one member from Terror Financing in each group, then a good mix of agents from Investigative and Counterterror. We need our own agents on scene ASAP. We can't afford to miss anything," Sharpe said.
"I'll work with Agent Mendoza to get the teams assigned and out the door with the necessary field support," Olson responded immediately.
"Great. I want those teams on site by mid-morning," he added, and both Mendoza and Olson nodded vigorously.
"Next. Comms. Anything?"
Special Agent Keith Weber walked forward a few steps from a position against the left wall of the room. He flipped open a battered pea-green government-issued logbook, which barely looked more weathered than he did. Sharpe saw that he had a sizable coffee stain on his light blue oxford shirt, which could not be hidden by fully buttoning his rumpled suit jacket. Weber pushed up a pair of wire rim glasses to squint at the logbook through puffy, red eyes.
"I've been on with Fort Meade all night. Nothing unusual prior to the murders. We've been pouring over this for hours, and we don't see any chatter or patterns that I would classify as suspicious, or even remotely interesting."
"It didn't go dead before the killings?" Sharpe interrupted.
"Not that we could tell. We traced the patterns back a month, and we're seeing the same level of activity," he said.
"And this morning?"
"We've seen a growing increase in communications, both national and overseas. In my opinion, news of the murders is starting to spread through these networks. We're doing everything we can to scan for more meaningful information or patterns, but so far, we haven't detected any direct previous link between our targeted communications and the coordinated attack. There is clearly a growing response after the event," Weber stated and moved back to the wall.
"I can't stress enough the importance of figuring this out. If Al Qaeda pulled the plug on these guys, we could be looking at an attack on our country or U.S. interests abroad. Until we figure it out, we need to treat this like an imminent threat."
He looked over at Supervisory Special Agent Olson and added, "Get those teams out the door before this investigation is hijacked by National Security. Our liaisons will have the best chance of uncovering something useful."
Sharpe was interrupted by Agent Mendoza, "Sir, I just took a call from the lead agent in Newport. They're pretty sure they just captured the shooter alive. He apparently slipped on some rocks and knocked himself unconscious trying to climb down the seawall behind Umar Salah's mansion. They think he's been lying among the rocks all night. They're moving him to the Newport police station."
"Get back on the phone and tell him that I want the suspect transported to the Boston field office. Just make sure they don't piss off local law enforcement. We'll still need their cooperation on scene at the house. And tell him I want that guy in an armored personnel carrier."
"I'm not sure they'll be able to—"
"I'm just trying to underscore the importance of his safe delivery. Did they say whether the suspect was Arab?" Sharpe interrupted.
"Dark-skinned. That's all I got. I'll get more details," he said and stepped out of the room to make the call.
"Agent Olson, I want you to oversee this personally. Call Gregory Carlisle in Counterterror, and tell him to bring his special interrogation team with you to Boston. He'll know what I'm talking about. I want this guy talking."
"Yes sir," she said and pulled out her cell phone, sitting back down on the desk.
"All right, that's it, let's get the teams organized and out of here. Support, I want full links set up to each site. Mobile links for the teams. Data, voice, video…the works. I want to be able to process everything as quickly as possible," Sharpe yelled, as the room erupted into a chaos of multi-tasking FBI agents.
"Agent Weber," he yelled.
Weber barreled through the gaggle of agents breaking for the door. "Sir?"
"How long have you been up?" he asked.
"I never went home yesterday. I took the duty section's first shift last night. I was on my way home when I got recalled at about one forty."
"I wish I could tell you that sleep was in your near future, but it doesn't look that way. First thing I need you to do is prepare a media-withhold request for immediate distribution to local law enforcement. I need this in ten minutes. I want to shut down all publicly available information until we have a handle on what we're dealing with."
"I'll have it for you ASAP," he said and turned to leave.
"And, Keith, the coffee works better when you drink it," Sharpe said, touching the coffee stain on Agent Weber's shirt.
Special Agent Weber smirked and bolted out of the room.
Sharpe turned and approached Heather Olson, who had started to dial her phone to contact Counterterror's duty section-lead.
"Heather, I want you to lean on this guy. Tell Gregory to give me a call immediately. I don't want him to hold back on this one. The stakes are too high. We might have to push the envelope here. I hope that doesn't bother you."
"I'd hate to think I've developed a reputation for being squeamish," she replied with a grin.
"On the contrary. That's why I woke you up at one thirty in the morning instead of your boss. Keep me updated. Frequently. Good luck."
"Understood, sir. Thank you," she said and turned back to her phone again.
Daniel stepped out of the shower and dried himself in front of the full-length mirror hanging from the back of the closed bathroom door. He wrapped a towel around his waist, as the steam-obscured image of his body clarified. His body was well toned from a regular routine of calisthenics, running and soccer. He carried very little body fat, which gave him a slightly gaunt appearance, which he couldn’t easily fix. He'd have to stop exercising to gain any weight, and sometimes a ten-mile run was the only thing that kept his head clear.
His torso was covered by numerous scars, some short and deep—others long and shallow. Two particularly nasty scars crisscrossed his chest, evidence of a knife fight that had ended badly for Daniel, and worse for the young Kosovar militant that had stumbled upon his sniper position. Most of the scars were reminders of his fickle luck; shrapnel and bullet fragments that hadn't found a lethal home in Daniel's body. A few of the scars were self-inflicted, part of his indoctrination at the "Ranch." The most notable mark on his body sat high on his right arm. A faded panther tattoo.
He opened the bathroom door and saw Jess standing at the foot of their bed. She looked stunning, as usual. Her dark brown hair, cut and styled straight, rested just below the shoulders of a navy blue blazer. Collar points of a crisp white blouse lay over the blazer's lapels, brightly contrasting the dark jacket and matching suit pants. Her eyes were fixed to a television hidden inside of the dark red armoire that sat against the wall, in front of their bed. She pulled a black belt through several loops of her pants while staring at the television.
"You missed a loop," he said.
"Quit staring," she said jokingly.
"I really can't help myself," he said.
"Check this out," she said, motioning toward the television.
Daniel walked over to help her with the loop she missed, glancing at the screen. A local reporter stood in front of two Cape Elizabeth police cars, which blocked the entrance to a long driveway. The driveway extended through a stone archway with dark iron light fixtures on each side, and led to a partially obscured luxury home settled behind mature pine trees. The archway connected to a three-foot-tall sandstone wall that extended the entire length of the property's road frontage. A local police officer leaned against the left side of the arch with his arms folded, keeping a close eye on the media crowd. Daniel caught a sparkling glimpse of Casco Bay through the archway, just past the house.
The reporter identified the deceased as Mohammed Ghani, an importer with offices in Portland and Boston. Police had withheld most of the details of the murder, but an anonymous source reported that Ghani had been stabbed to death outside of his home. Another source confirmed the presence of federal agents at the crime scene, but Portland's FBI office had refused to comment. Daniel decided to change the subject.
"Hey, are you going out for drinks with the ladies tonight? I could meet you for dinner after."
"That would be nice. We can grab sushi at Sakura's. It's right across the street from The Lounge," she said, turning to face him.
"Ah…The Lounge. Where all the young ladies gather to sip cosmos…"
"And all the men stand around watching them," she added.
"I can't wait to pluck you out of there, right in front of all those desperate guys. Can we pretend we don't know each other?"
"I can't guarantee the behavior of the women in my office, so it's probably not a good idea. Sounds fun though," she said and kissed him.
"The betrothed members of the crew usually start heading home around eight, so meet me any time after that."
"I can't wait," he whispered, before kissing her passionately.
CIA Headquarters, McLean, Virginia
Randy Keller strode casually down an empty corridor in the National Clandestine Service's wing of the Central Intelligence Agency's headquarters building. At seven in the morning, the Counterterrorism Center's section was quiet; most of the analysts and staff were sitting in sluggish traffic, still thirty to sixty minutes away from the CIA's sprawling McLean, Virginia, campus. The place would explode with activity in about thirty minutes, and he preferred to be back on the road when it did.
He reached the end of the corridor and paused at the door that read Karl Berg, Assistant Director, Counterterrorism. A quick knock announced his presence.
"Come in," yelled Berg.
Keller scanned the room as he stepped inside, surprised to find both Berg and Audra Bauer, director of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC), huddled around a computer workstation next to Berg's desk. He hadn't expected to make a report directly to the CTC's director. Neither of them looked up from the screen as he hesitantly took a few more steps into Berg’s office.
"Randy. The director and I just finished with the latest feed from the FBI. This link is fantastic work."
"Thank you. You're seeing what they feed out to their on-scene agents and key section heads. They add agents to the feed as they are brought into the investigation. It keeps everyone in the loop and on the same page, but it's not always the most complete picture," said Keller.
"And that's exactly why we have you over there. I've read your summaries of this morning's events. I agree that the FBI had been compromised," said Bauer. “Please have a seat.”
Keller turned a chair to face them and sat down. He glanced at the windows and wondered if they were really designed to resist electronic listening devices. In his fifteen years at the CIA, the threat of external eavesdropping hadn’t been a concern for Keller. He’d never sat behind a desk in a room with a window.
"Do you have any ideas about where to start looking?" said Bauer.
"Ma'am, it's difficult to say. They don't compartmentalize their operations like we do. This is one of their highest priority investigative task forces, but they still have no organic support assets. The core team is permanently assigned to HYDRA and is comprised of mostly Terror Financing personnel, but they rely on key players in nearly every other section for critical, daily support. These key personnel probably spend most of their time working for the task force, but they also support other investigations within the entire Counterterrorism Division. I see new names and new faces on a weekly, if not daily basis. I've managed to compile a list of everyone that I've seen, but I guarantee this is not a complete list. There are simply too many people involved to count. You should've seen how many people they assembled this morning. Lots of fresh faces," he said, before handing a flash drive over to Berg.
"Nice work. We'll start looking at financial records, communications trails…get the groundwork rolling on this. I'll walk this over to Counter-Intel," said Berg.
"Take it to HUMINT, too. They need to know what to start looking for immediately. Have them look back at least one year. Eight simultaneous murders? I guarantee this has been in the works for months, if not years," said Bauer.
"No mention by Sharpe of a possible leak?" said Berg.
"Not to the group…or to me."
"That's not much of a surprise. Sharpe doesn't completely trust you, and he needs the task force to focus on evidentiary procedure. Any mention of a leak this early would undermine the investigation," said Bauer flatly, then added, "We need to let them focus on what they do well, while we start digging into all the possibilities."
They all nodded, and the director stood up. Berg and Keller joined her.
"All right, I'm going to brief the deputy. Keep me in the loop on everything. Randy, I need you to figure out a way to get us inside their interrogation efforts. I'm tempted to send someone out to Boston," she said from the door.
"I don't think it will be necessary. Sharpe made it clear that he wanted a live interrogation feed, and I don't plan to stray very far from Sharpe's side, unless something interesting pops up," said Keller.
"Stay close. I don't think Sharpe has thought this through all the way. He's sending a special team up to Boston with special orders that may not play out too well over a live feed. He'll shut it down pretty quickly if Mr. Carlisle pushes the envelope," said Bauer, before disappearing into the hallway.
Berg patted him on the shoulder.
"Back to FBI headquarters with you. Good work on this. Let me know what you need, and it's yours," said Berg.
"I think I'm going to need a cot for my office."
"For what? I can't imagine any upcoming scenario in which you sleep."
"Good point. I'll see if we can get in on the feed from Boston. One way or another," said Keller.
"Now that would be an epic score on your part."
"That's why you have me over in FBI land."
"Among other reasons. Make sure to grab whatever you need on the way out. I'll call tech support as soon as you leave my office, which should be in a few seconds," said Berg.
"I'm gone," he said and closed the door behind him.
Keller weaved his way through the growing crowd of analysts, displaying a combination of strained smiles and harried expressions that effectively discouraged anyone from engaging his attention. Reaching the elevator bank unmolested, he jabbed the down button several times. He needed to get back to FBI headquarters before the Boston interrogation began.
Daniel stared intensely at the flat-screen monitor in his office. His cubicle door was closed, and he hadn't been interrupted since arriving nearly thirty minutes earlier. This came as no surprise, since everyone was busy poring over their reports and preparing their presentations. The overseas marketing division had a meeting at 9:00, followed by a general marketing department meeting at 10:00. It was that time of the month for mother Zenith. Meetings scheduled on top of more meetings.
He clicked the mouse a few more times, the knot in his stomach tightening. A quick Google search when he first arrived in his cubicle had yielded seven overnight murders similar to the one in Cape Elizabeth. All wealthy Muslims. Details remained sketchy in most cases, almost as if the information had been withheld. In one case, the Google link had been deactivated. The story had been filed in the Providence Journal, and its tag line had piqued Daniel's interest the most:
"In Newport, a prominent businessman was found shot to death on his patio…local authorities report suspect in custody."
He didn't like the idea of a suspect in custody, and was pretty sure Sanderson wouldn't like it either. Daniel sifted through the favorites links again and examined the information.
"Muslim art trader slain outside of Mount Pleasant Home. Apparent close range shooting…"
"Couple killed in bizarre drive-by shooting, while walking at night in the Eastport subdivision of Annapolis. Killings shock neighbors, who describe Sa'id and Adia Faris as generous, peaceful members of their small community. No suspects in shooting…"
"Jibran Nazir's body was found by his wife outside of the entrance gate to their Hampton estate. The passenger side of Nazir's car was riddled with bullets, leaving him dead on the scene…"
Daniel clicked the mouse button on the next link. "The link you have requested is inactive or no longer exists."
Someone is shutting this down fast.
He quickly shuffled through two more links. Two more shootings, one a break-in at a Rye waterfront townhouse, husband and wife murdered; another in the upper west side of Manhattan, doorman and Asim Shareef executed just inside the lobby of an exclusive apartment building. Three out of the eight articles mentioned federal law enforcement involvement, which included the stabbing of Mohammed Ghani, on the driveway of his Shore Road residence in Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Only one stabbing? Interesting.
He entered several different search strings for the murder that concerned him the most. Nothing. The murder in Newport, Rhode Island, had been erased from the public's eye, which was an unsettling development. If the feds actually caught the killer, Daniel's life could unravel quickly. He softly hit the keyboard tray with a closed fist.
He should have known better than to take the assignment. Daniel had enjoyed five great years with Jessica, finally settling into a "normal" life. He didn't take much pleasure in his job, but who did? Daniel didn't want to start over again after a long stretch on the run, so he grudgingly accepted Sanderson’s last minute, seemingly airtight mission, thinking the general would go away afterward. He'd been kidding himself. Sanderson was up to something big, and it would not matter what he had decided.
Daniel closed the Internet browser and turned his attention to the files stacked on his desk. He needed to maintain appearances for at least a few more hours, despite how very little he now cared about Zenith's overseas emerging markets.
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...