Merciless Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
Charity Styles is a former Olympian and U.S. Army helicopter pilot. Captured and tortured by terrorists in Afghanistan after the opening blows of the War on Terror, Charity has a score to settle. Now working for the Department of Homeland Security, she is offered the opportunity to make a real difference.
Critical memories of her ordeal are buried deep in Charity’s subconscious. When the director of Homeland Security’s vaunted Caribbean Counterterrorism Command, discovers the key to unlocking Charity’s past, he unleashes a tempest, the fury of which no enemy can prepare for.
Already a martial arts instructor and pilot, Director Stockwell guides her training in marksmanship and spycraft, making Charity the most dangerous asset in America’s covert arsenal. Charity then sets her sails, crossing the sea in an antique sloop. A single-minded, all-encompassing determination stays her course.
To confront the enemy and play by their rules.
Release date: September 29, 2015
Publisher: Down Island Press
Print pages: 222
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Merciless Charity: A Charity Styles Novel
At first glance, the man appeared youthful, though he was in his fifties. His dark hair, trimmed unfashionably short, was just starting to turn gray around the temples. On closer inspection under the flickering firelight, creases could be seen at the corners of his gray-blue eyes.
He sat at a large outdoor table with a younger blond woman, their faces lit only by the Tiki torches around the table. The tiny island they were on, miles from anywhere, was idyllic, and under other circumstances the woman might find the scene romantic.
“This is the only way this can work,” he told her, sliding a file folder across the table.
The woman sitting across from him was attractive. He’d noted this early on, with some foreshadowing sadness. She was in her late twenties, slim, with broader shoulders than most women, the result of having been an Olympic swimmer seven years earlier. She wore her hair at a medium length, just below her shoulders. Her complexion was flawless, deeply tanned as a result of having grown up in Southern California and spending a lot of her time outdoors.
The blonde looked at the file and gave it only a moment’s thought before picking it up and folding it into the inside pocket of her vest. She’d read the details later, when she was alone.
Right now they had a more pressing concern: protecting one of their own people and his family. She’d arrived with four others, helicoptering to this tiny outlying island in the Florida Keys backcountry. An imminent threat had been received, and the target of that threat was the man who owned the island and occasionally provided transportation for their clandestine group.
The man across from her was Associate Deputy Director Travis Stockwell, head of the Caribbean Counterterrorism Command and her boss’s boss. They were on the island as part of a protection force, whether the target liked it or not.
The blonde was the helicopter pilot and martial arts instructor for the group, comprised of former military special operators and other high-speed, low-drag law enforcement and intelligence assets. Charity Styles was no stranger to situations like this.
Approaching the table was the man she had come to help protect. Charity also found him attractive, though he too was quite a few years older than she was. Over six feet tall, lithe and powerfully built, Jesse McDermitt probably didn’t need anyone protecting him from a Miami street gang, but the group numbered in the hundreds and was known to be ruthless.
Stockwell looked up and spoke to McDermitt as he approached the table. “When the deputy brings your daughter home, it would probably be wise for him to stay here.” McDermitt’s daughter, Kim, had left the island earlier in the evening to go on a dinner date with a local Monroe deputy sheriff.
“Yeah, I was gonna suggest that,” McDermitt agreed. “I know he knows his way around the water down near the bigger islands, but it’s real easy to get lost up here if you don’t know the way really well.”
McDermitt was a retired Marine sniper. Charity had thought him to be some sort of a hermit upon meeting him for the first time a year earlier. He operated a part-time charter service for divers and fishermen, but spent most of his days alone on this island. Over the past year, he’d changed. After inheriting a good bit of money from his late wife’s estate last year and then finding a valuable Spanish treasure six months ago, he’d turned his little island into a staging area for the group’s missions.
They were all a part of a clandestine counterterrorism team under the direct control of Stockwell’s boss, the Secretary of Homeland Security.
A month after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Charity had applied to and been accepted by the Army’s Officer Candidate School. Her father, a Vietnam veteran, had been a crop duster, and had taught his young daughter to fly.
Six months later, while flying a medevac chopper, Charity had been shot down in the district of Dai Chopan in Zabul Province, Afghanistan. She had been injured, but managed to evade the enemy for several hours. Eventually she had been captured by the Taliban fighters. She’d been raped and sodomized twenty-nine times over the following days, until Coalition Forces had mounted a raid in the desolate terrain. She’d been able to kill her one guard in the confusion and make her escape.
After that, Charity had spent several months in rehab, trying to cope with what had happened during her captivity. In the end, she’d been quietly mustered out with a medical discharge.
A year ago, after more than three years as a martial arts instructor for Miami-Dade police, Charity had been invited to join a new counterterrorism team based out of nearby Homestead Air Reserve base. She’d jumped at the chance. Her experiences at the hands of her captors had left a mark, but Charity had learned to turn that part of her brain on and off at will. Unleashing that part of her mind where the demons dwelled made her very dangerous, a fact which hadn’t gone unnoticed.
Charity had helped McDermitt find the treasure along with several others, he’d invited. She was due a share of it, which could set her up for life. If she wanted that kind of boring life.
McDermitt had originally been contracted to covertly transport personnel and equipment to hot spots around South Florida and the Caribbean in his charter boat. Up until now, Charity’s position on the team had been a bit less covert. The CCC was a badged agency under Homeland Security, and the group of operatives, while comprised of mostly military people, were badged agents much like the FBI or DEA. Covert, but not as covert as McDermitt. He was a freelancer and didn’t carry a badge. Once Charity put the file folder from Stockwell in her pocket, she became more covert. Only Stockwell, the secretary, and the president would know her new assignment.
Stockwell had approached Charity several months earlier with a proposition—one that came directly from the DHS secretary and ostensibly had the approval of the president as well. Stockwell had told her then that if she accepted the proposal, she’d operate strictly under his control, with plausible deniability for both the president and secretary.
The proposal was simple. Stockwell would be seen as retiring from public service and would be replaced by McDermitt. From time to time, a courier would deliver a physical file to Stockwell, who would then fly to Charity’s location and hand-deliver it.
Charity’s new job would be a lot more difficult and dangerous than her old one. Having no family and no close friends to speak of, she was the ideal candidate. At a time of her choosing, she would steal the unmarked helicopter she was currently piloting and disappear into thin air. That was the cover story, and only Stockwell and McDermitt would know the real story. When she reappeared somewhere in the Caribbean, someone would die.
“That’s what I was thinking,” Stockwell said to McDermitt. “If he ran across a boatful of Haitians, a fast exit wouldn’t be a good idea. Do you know when they’ll be back?”
“No later than twenty-one hundred,” McDermitt replied.
Nodding to the director and rising from the table, Charity said, “I’m going to get some rest.” With another nod to McDermitt, she left them there. No doubt the director would speak to McDermitt soon about taking over his position as the head of the two counterterrorism teams. At least then he would know what was about to happen. The others on the team would be left to believe a fabricated story.
Charity walked toward the bunkhouse in the dim light from the torches and campfires. McDermitt had originally built it and another just like it to house their team. The one on the west side had been converted so that half of it was a communications center and housing for the women on the team. It was also where McDermitt’s daughter was staying, since the main house only had one bedroom.
Earlier in the evening, the team’s communications and electronics specialist had arrived, and now she was busy setting up her equipment. Chyrel Koshinski was a small woman and likable, but Charity maintained only a cool working relationship with her, as well as with the other team members.
As she walked past, the two women exchanged greetings, and Charity reclined on the far bunk to look at the file Stockwell had just given her. Facing Chyrel, so the contents of the file couldn’t be viewed, she removed it from her vest pocket and opened it. She was sure the other woman wouldn’t ask, and equally sure that if she saw anything, she’d keep it to herself. Chyrel had come to the CCC team from an organization known for keeping secrets. She was a former CIA computer analyst.
The first page of the file was the typical physical description, along with two photographs. In the first, the target appeared to be in custody. Though wearing a full beard, he had closely cropped hair and wore an orange jumpsuit. She confirmed his identity on the next page. Captured in the Arma Mountains in Afghanistan during Operation Anaconda in March of 2002, Hussein Seif al Din Asfour had been twenty-three when captured as a Taliban fighter. He had been sent to the detention facility in Guantanamo Bay and detained there until 2004, when he was transferred into Uruguayan custody. He’d escaped and left the country less than a year later.
The second photo was obviously taken at long range with a surveillance camera. However, the image quality was very good and, looking from one photo to the other, Charity could easily tell they were of the same man. She read further in the file.
After his escape, al Din Asfour had returned to Afghanistan, where he had disappeared in the ranks of the Taliban for nearly a year. The later photograph was taken just two months ago, in the Mexican state of Veracruz. It’d been reported that a Hezbollah training camp had been established deep in the remote forest-covered southern slope of the massive San Martin Tuxtla volcano.
As she read, Charity became tired, her eyes slowly closing. Her chin dropped, but a sound jolted her awake. Looking over the file, she saw that Chyrel was slumped back in her chair. Realizing that something was terribly wrong, Charity put the file back into her vest pocket before rising from the bunk. She made it halfway to her feet, before her legs simply stopped working and she collapsed back on the bunk.
Slowly, the sun disappeared behind the distant mountain peaks, leaving the high, wispy clouds bathed in a pale orange-and-pink afterglow.
Awad Qureshi finished his evening prayer and rolled up his prayer mat. From his vantage point on the north rim of a long-dormant volcano, Awad had a commanding view of the surrounding terrain and its approaches. His relief would be coming up the trail out of the forest soon, and he was hungry.
He’d only arrived at this desolate location two weeks earlier. Each of the fifteen men in the group had arrived separately over the course of several days, making their way in whatever fashion they could. Awad had come by way of a small freighter to a port just sixty kilometers northwest of where the group was now camped.
Being fluent in both Spanish and English, he had it easier than most of his companions and was able to get a ride with a farmer to within fifteen kilometers of the volcano.
The group of men had been instructed to go by foot the last fifteen kilometers, and though the last leg of his journey had been very difficult, the terrain wasn’t all that different than his homeland. The last of the group had arrived a week ago, and training had begun the following day.
At all times, one of the group was on this high escarpment, three hundred feet above the valley below. This high rim was above the surrounding trees, and when it was clear, Awad could see the distant ocean, twenty kilometers to the north, stretching away diagonally to the east as the shoreline curved around the outflow from a long-ago eruption.
Down in the valley below, actually the volcano’s crater, gunfire erupted sporadically. Surrounded by the high rim of the volcanic basin, the sound was shielded from anyone near the base of the great mountain. The kilometer-wide crater was the perfect training site.
The group’s actual camp was to the south, down the treacherous and densely forested escarpment. Occasionally, tourists were known to hike the trails on the northern and eastern slopes, which were much easier to traverse and provided spectacular views. The western slope was popular with rock climbers, as it had many canyons cut deep into the side of the mountain. It was also closer to the only highway in the area. But the southern slope was heavily forested, a deep jungle that rose forty feet to a canopy of leaves that all but blocked out the sunlight. After a week of traipsing back and forth on the game trail several times a day, the men in the group no longer even needed a light at night.
Fortunately, tourists and rock climbers were uncommon this time of year, due to the oppressive heat. Lookouts rarely reported a truck or car going by on the highway below. There was little chance their camp would be discovered, and they trained only in the rocky confines of the crater, where the terrain was at least level.
Movement caught Awad’s eye from the trail below. He picked up his binoculars and held them to his eyes. It was his relief, bringing his evening meal. All but the group’s leader shared the responsibility of standing lookout on the barren rocks above the valley.
Each man stood watch for only two hours at a time. With fourteen sharing this duty, always relieving and being relieved by the same person, Awad’s assigned time was several hours later every day.
Reaching the lookout spot at the summit, Faud Assaf sat down across from Awad and said, “As-salamu alaykum.”
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam,” Awad replied. “What do we have for dinner?”
“You are always hungry, my friend,” Faud replied. “I fear you may have a tapeworm in your stomach.”
Faud passed a small covered bowl to Awad. “Majdi killed one of the small deer this afternoon.”
Awad removed the earthen lid from the bowl and set it aside. Using his fingers, he quickly devoured the spicy stew, licking his fingers clean.
“As always,” Awad said, wiping his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt, “there is nothing of significance to report. Two cars went by on the highway, but neither of them stopped.”
“Hussein wishes to see you upon your return. He has more questions for you on American culture.”
Rising, Awad picked up his rifle, stowed the empty bowl in his pack and started down the steep cliff to the trail that would lead him to the training area. He would meet with the leader and then retire to the camp to rest before the morning training session.
It was fully dark when Awad arrived at the valley floor. The others had already ended their training and were nowhere to be found. It took another thirty minutes to hike down the southern slope to the camp. Though the sky was clear and a bright moon was overhead, it provided little light to guide his way.
Reaching the camp, he went directly to the leader’s tent, tapped on the front support post and waited. The flap was pulled back and the group’s leader, Hussein Seif al Din Asfour, said, “It-fad-dal, Awad. As-salamu alaykum.”
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam, Hussein. Faud said you wished to see me.”
Awad entered the tent and waited until the group leader sat on the bare dirt floor and motioned for him to sit also.
“How long did you stay in America?” Hussein asked.
“You learned much in those three years at the American university.”
Awad nodded. “At the university, yes. But I learned much more outside the classroom.”
“We will move against the infidels in two weeks.”
“That soon?” Awad asked. The group had only been together for a short time, and it seemed premature.
“Yes, I understand it seems a short period. However, our target is an easy one, an event that only happens once every year. You are second in command and it is time you know what that target is.”
“Allah willing, I will martyr myself in glory.”
Hussein reached behind him and picked up a small hookah. Awad was uncomfortable with the use of opium, particularly by someone in power, but he dared not say anything.
“Do you know the city of San Antonio, in Texas?”
“I know of it,” Awad replied. “I have never been there.” This seemed to trouble Hussein, so Awad continued, “America is a very large country with many thousands of cities. Even Americans who travel often will never see them all.”
“There is a place in this city. A place called River Walk. At this place every year, they celebrate their military’s conquest over Allah’s people and drink alcohol.”
“I have heard of this,” Awad said. “It is televised live.”
Hussein’s mouth curled into a sadistic smile. “That is the main reason I chose it.”
Hussein lit the hookah and inhaled deeply. “There are many shops and restaurants along this River Walk, and tour boats that carry dozens of people along its length. We will separate into three groups on three of these boats. When the time is right, we will kill the infidels on the boats and as many as we can on this River Walk. You will lead the first boat, I will lead the second and Majdi will lead the third.”
“It is many kilometers to this city,” Awad said, “with many dangers along the way, just to get to the American border.”
Hussein nodded. “This is another reason why we will go in three groups. Majdi has been living in America for several years and speaks both English and Spanish. I learned English, as well as Spanish, while I was being held at the American prison, and you are fluent in both languages as well. Once across the border, we will rent separate vehicles in McAllen for the journey to San Antonio.”
Awad thought for a moment. Hussein had been a captive of the Americans for some time, held at their prison in Cuba. The Spanish he had learned there was very different from that of the Mexican peasants here. But Hussein had a reputation for being quick to fly off the handle, so Awad was hesitant to point this out. Perhaps anyone he came into contact with would think him a visitor from another Central or South American country.
“How do we get from here to the border?”
“A drug cartel, one of the most powerful in Mexico, will provide a truck to transport all of us to Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, in two weeks’ time. In Reynosa, we will be provided with paperwork that will allow us to cross the border without issue, mixed in with a large group of workers. Go now. Get rested. We have much preparation over the next two weeks.”
Without another word, Awad rose and left the leader’s tent. Outside, he stood silently in the darkness until his eyesight adjusted and then made his way to his own tent.
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