Out of work and on the run after a shocking betrayal by his brothers-in-arms, the ex-Special Forces commando hasn't stopped moving for months.
He can't. Some of the same soldiers who left him for dead in the Middle East still want his head. And they're getting closer.
So far, he's been lucky. But Dak is low on money and nearly out of time.
All he needs is an easy gig. A place to lie low, bank some cash, and quietly figure out his next move.
That's not exactly what he finds.
Some rich kid with more money than he knows what to do with wants to open his own museum. But first, he's got to fill it, and that's where Dak comes in.
Not sure if his gift for hunting bad guys will translate to finding priceless artifacts, Dak's willing to give it a shot. He needs this job. The kid will pay him a lot of money and ask no questions.
Before he knows it, Dak's on the first flight to South America, chasing his big payday. But Dak's about to trade one set of problems for something even worse: the deadliest mission of his life.
USA Today best-selling author Ernest Dempsey, creator of the popular Sean Wyatt series, again expands his ever-growing universe of spies, soldiers, treasure hunters, and terrorists. Dak Harper is the baddest good guy you've ever met, and the pace of Dempsey's new series is as unrelenting as anything he's ever written.
Release date: April 2, 2021
Publisher: 138 Publishing
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The Courier: A Dak Harper Thriller
Dak Harper stared down at the debit card on the hotel room desk, knowing he couldn’t use the card until Colonel Tucker was dead. Next to the card, a stack of money sat on the desk’s dark mahogany surface. To call it a stack was generous. All counted, he had $237 left in cash sitting next to his fake passport and driver’s license.
He’d been careful, double-dipping at convenience stores or markets, shuffling money around to make it nearly impossible to track—not that the people chasing him were that good.
Still, he preferred to play it safe.
At his cabin back in the mountains of Tennessee, he had weapons, munitions, cash, and precious metals stored up for a rainy day, what others would say was a hitting-the-fan sort of contingency. The fan wasn’t on yet, but it was plugged in with a fresh pile of manure sitting in a bucket close by.
Even the purchase of the cabin and its property had been concealed with the greatest of care. Dak used an LLC along with a subsidiary corporation to add two layers of anonymity to ownership.
The military had cleared his name and restored his benefits and his bank accounts, but Dak wasn’t stupid enough to use them. He wasn’t about to make it easy on Tucker.
The former officer had essentially been Dak’s boss, though that term wasn’t often used. Tucker was in charge of operations near Hamrin, in Iraq, and had made a series of career-ending mistakes, the first of which was wrongfully accusing Dak Harper of attempted murder and the betrayal of the men on his Delta Force team.
Even when Tucker learned the truth about what really happened—that Harper had been the one betrayed and left for dead in a desert cave—the colonel pushed ahead, unwilling to admit he was wrong. That vindictiveness cost him everything.
When Dak was cleared of all wrongdoing, Tucker was dismissed—given benefits, his pension, the whole nine, all in exchange for his quiet retirement. Dak knew the man did not intend to go silently. He blamed Dak for his fall from power, a collapse that blocked the colonel from climbing higher up the ladder. It was no secret Tucker had his eyes set on making general, and perhaps someday to even loftier positions within the government.
Now, none of that was possible.
Knowing Tucker, Dak figured the man was bent on revenge, and he wouldn’t stop until his vengeance was fulfilled. With connections and resources all over the world, Tucker was more than capable of deploying mercenaries who were willing to exchange ethics and morals in exchange for thirty pieces of silver.
Dak knew there was only one way he would truly be safe. That would be when Tucker was dead.
Until then, Dak had to keep moving. That’s why the job he’d discovered was so fortuitous. He’d saved up a few financial resources, but those reserves could run low if tapped too often, and he didn’t want to risk going back to the cabin in the mountains more than necessary. Now, he needed money.
He turned his head and looked out the balcony door of the condo he’d rented in midtown Atlanta. It was one of the newer high-rises built in the last five years, contemporary and modern, with clean white paint and gray-brown hardwood flooring. The place had been purchased—he assumed—to be a rental, a common practice in the internet age, when people could rent out their homes on apps and websites.
Twenty stories below, the bustling city of Atlanta churned with activity. It was still dark outside in the early morning, but people were already in the middle of their commute or traveling through town to get a head start on the traffic.
In a few hours, Dak would meet his new employer, though he still had reservations about the in-person aspect of taking the job.
For all he knew, it could be a trap—an elaborate setup by the colonel.
Dak would take precautions. He always did. So far, everything checked out, but he wouldn’t let down his guard.
He scooped up the money, cards, and identification on the desk and stuffed them into his front pockets. He spun around and picked up his black tactical bag; his few belongings having already been packed.
Dak traveled light, only carrying a few clean sets of clothes and the other necessities. He didn’t like being on the run, always looking over his shoulder, but he was accustomed to it at this point. His former line of work had prepared him well for it. Dak only hoped that someday he could live a normal life—whatever that meant.
He turned and made for the door but paused when he saw a shadow move past the threshold on the floor on the other side. He frowned and ducked into the bathroom to the left, immediately wishing he’d grabbed one of the kitchen knives opposite him. They were fifteen to twenty feet away—so close yet so far.
Dak lowered his pack down to the floor, pressing his shoulder against the doorframe as he watched the shadow linger just beyond the entrance. He sighed. So much for peace and quiet, he thought.
The assassin didn’t attempt to unlock the door. At least they were smart or aware enough to have seen the lights on in the apartment through the crack at the bottom of the door. Or so Dak figured. Knowing that he was awake, the killer would loiter outside the entrance in hopes catching the target off guard as he left.
Dak only waited another ten seconds to make sure the assassin didn’t try to come in, then he emerged from his hiding place and walked across the open corridor to the kitchen. There, he grabbed two large kitchen knives and two smaller ones. He also grabbed a dish towel from a silver rack by the sink.
Then he went back to the door, slipping the knives into his belt before reaching the entrance. Dak quietly looped the towel around the door handle and let it dangle. He paused for a second and then flicked the light switches. The condo went dark, only dimly lit from the city lights beyond the balcony and the faint glow in the east where the sun pushed toward morning.
Dak watched the shadows beyond the door shift. He knew the killer was getting into position, and if he weren’t mistaken, a new shadow represented a firearm—probably with a suppressor.
There was no other way out than through the door. Dak would have opted for a balcony escape, but not twenty stories up.
With no other options, Dak crouched low near the door. The assassin would, most likely, be holding their weapon chest high. That’s how he would do it.
Dak clutched one of the kitchen knives in a fist as he reached out with his left hand and twisted the deadbolt. The lock clicked. Then he grasped the towel tied to the latch, took a breath, and yanked the rag down and back.
The towel’s knot held, and the door came free of the frame with another click. It swung wide open, pouring light from the hall into the darkened apartment.
Three muted pops accompanied the door’s swoosh as the assassin fired blindly into the darkness. The bullets drilled through the glass balcony door, shattering it and sending huge fragments of glass down onto the floor.
A pause washed into the room. Dak knew the man had to be confused. He added to the confusion by letting go of the towel. The door’s pneumatic piston at the top pushed it closed on the killer and forced the intruder to brace it with a free hand.
The assassin stopped the door before it had fully closed and quickly stepped into the room, sweeping to his left first to check the kitchen.
Maybe that was luck. Perhaps it was a tactical error. Either way, when the man turned left, Dak sprang from behind him and drove the kitchen knife up toward the back of the man’s skull while wrapping his other hand around the killer’s forehead.
It was a move he’d used several times on covert missions. The kill was always clean—momentarily—and most importantly, silent.
This assassin, however, was no ordinary opponent.
The man sensed the movement behind him. A split second before the blade tip reached his neck, he twisted his arm and fired the pistol under his armpit at the enemy.
Dak was forced to abandon his initial plan and twist to the side, narrowly dodging bullets as they popped out of the muzzle.
The counter move didn’t completely deny Dak’s primary attack, though, and the point of his knife slid over the back of the assassin’s neck, cutting a wide slice into flesh.
The attacker seemed unfazed by the wound and continued turning until he faced Dak. He raised his weapon and met Dak’s eyes. The man’s short dark hair was in disarray, as if he’d just rolled out of bed and decided to go kill someone. The brown eyes were the color of dark cocoa, and they stared back without remorse or doubt.
The man fired two more shots. The bullets missed Dak’s head as he twisted and backed into the door. He swiped the knife’s edge down and cut a deep gash into the gunman’s forearm. The weapon dropped to the floor with a clatter. This time, the man grunted in pain.
The assassin grabbed Dak’s wrist with his good hand and twisted hard to the side while pulling him forward. The awkward angle forced Dak to let go of the knife, and he dropped to his knees in time to free his wrist, but also catch a knee to the face.
The dark room flashed with colors as the blow drove Dak against the wall. He clawed at the floor, dazed and desperate to get up.
The assassin grabbed Dak by the ankle and pulled him back toward the doorway. The man quickly stomped on Dak’s back. The deadening blow nearly knocked the air from Dak’s lungs, and he gasped to hold on to consciousness.
A fast foot swung around, directed at Dak’s temple. He narrowly missed what could have been a fight-ending shot to the head by rolling drunkenly to the side.
His head cleared slightly, and Dak saw an opening. Without thinking, he swung his other foot up, striking the assassin in the groin with his shin. The man groaned and doubled over as Dak bicycled his other knee up into the killer’s nose.
The assassin shrieked and drew back. Dak pulled another knife from his belt and stabbed up at the enemy. The man recovered despite watering eyes and a bleeding nose and managed to deflect Dak’s strike with the swing of a fist that struck Dak in the forearm.
The second knife flew out of Dak’s hand, and the assassin moved in.
Fists flew in a flurry of attacks and counters. The killer was fast, but he was also hurt. The man tried to grapple and get Dak into a compromising position, but Dak had seen every one of those moves before.
The two danced into the living room, feet and knees swinging, blocking, dipping, and kicking. Dak landed a punch to the man’s right ear and momentarily caused him to step back, but the retreat didn’t last. Dak pushed toward him but caught a right hook as reward for his careless attack.
The killer tilted and kicked, landing another blow with his heel into Dak’s midsection. Dak reeled, stumbling backward over the coffee table in the middle of the room. He rolled over it, deftly landing on his feet despite the thumping ache in his gut.
He breathed heavily and glowered at the assassin. “You don’t have to do this, you know,” Dak muttered. “You can walk out of here and the colonel will never know.”
“Weak,” the killer grunted. “He said you had gone soft.”
“Bold talk from a man who isn’t brave enough to come after me himself.”
“Perhaps,” the assassin partially agreed. “But then again, if he was, I wouldn’t be getting a big payday.”
Dak smiled. “So, Tucker’s found some deep pockets to help with his little project.”
“Stop talking,” the killer said. “Time to die.”
He surged forward.
Dak whipped the first of the two smaller knives from his belt and flung it at the attacker. It tumbled by the man, narrowly missing his shoulder. The second the first knife was out of his fingers, Dak grabbed the second and thew it hard.
The assassin, preoccupied with dodging the first knife, didn’t have time to miss the second. The point of the blade sank into the man’s chest, close to his right shoulder. The killer grimaced and stumbled toward Dak, still unwilling to give up the fight.
Dak dropped one step back toward the shattered balcony door. The assassin winced with every stride as he charged, the blade in his chest cutting and pricking nerves amid the bumps.
Dak braced himself for impact. The assassin tackled him, running Dak through the jagged remains of the door with a crash. He grabbed at Dak’s shirt, and Dak did the same, except Dak let himself fall onto the balcony floor. In one fluid motion, he rolled back and kicked his feet up, planting his heels in the killer’s midsection.
When Dak pushed his legs out, the assassin vaulted over the railing.
The last thing Dak saw in the man’s eyes was sheer terror as he felt nothing but air beneath him. Dak rolled over and watched the body tumble downward until it hit the street below—right in front of a parked bus.
Dak struggled to his feet and stumbled back through the broken door into the living room. He looked around the previously spotless apartment. He sighed and returned to the bathroom where he’d left his bag, scooped it off the floor and then picked up the dead assassin’s pistol.
He stuffed the gun into his belt and pulled his Nirvana T-shirt down over it, then opened the door. Panning the room one more time, he shook his head. “No way I’m getting that deposit back,” he grumbled.
Then Dak stepped out into the corridor and let the door close behind him.
Dak closed the door to his truck and stared at the house. From all appearances, it looked just like all the other homes on the street. The dwellings were nice, clean, and definitely had more space than he’d ever needed before, or would probably ever need, but hardly suited for someone who’d made more than ten million dollars in the last few years.
Perhaps that was just it. The owners of the home weren’t the ones who’d made the millions.
It was their kid.
The McClarens were a fairly typical, hard-working couple. Mrs. McClaren worked as a family therapist, while Mr. McClaren worked in hospital administration. Together, they pulled down a good income, but it paled in comparison to their son’s.
To say Boston McClaren had a knack for video games would be the understatement of the young century. It would be like saying politicians have a knack for lying. The kid was a savant, a prodigy of the gaming world, and he’d made a small fortune in a short amount of time with his streaming channels.
The uneventful drive took just under two hours from Atlanta to Chattanooga, though it felt like days with Dak looking in the rearview mirror every fifteen seconds or so to make sure he wasn’t being followed.
He’d been fortunate Tucker’s assassin had been alone, but Dak wasn’t naïve enough to believe that would always be the case. This was, he knew, the first of potentially many attacks the colonel would send his way, and if he weren’t ready, Dak would end up on the losing end sooner or later.
All the more reason to keep moving.
He trudged toward the front door and was surprised when it opened. He stopped and waited as a short blond boy with black glasses appeared.
“Are you Mr. Harper?” the boy asked with a curious expression on his face.
“Depends on who’s asking,” Dak replied coolly.
The kid looked around for a second, then back to Dak. “I’m asking. You’re Dak Harper, right?”
Dak snickered. Kids.
“If you’re Boston McClaren, then I’m Dak. Just Dak. None of that Mr. Harper stuff.”
“Because your dad is Mr. Harper?”
“Something like that.”
Boston’s cool blue eyes met with Dak’s jade ones, and then the boy grinned. “Awesome. Come on in.”
Dak looked around one last time, a touch confused, and then ambled up the steps and onto the front porch. He leaned forward and peered into the entryway as if trying to find something.
“Do…your parents let you answer the door for strangers?” Dak asked.
“My parents are in the kitchen,” Boston explained. “They told me to get the door since they knew it was you.”
“Ah.” In his mind, Dak considered it reckless to let their boy get the door for someone who—so far—was a stranger.
Boston motioned toward the interior. “Would you like to come in? Or do you want to just stand out here to talk business?”
“Talk business? That’s a little direct for a kid your age, don’t you think?”
“I’m twelve. Not stupid,” Boston groused. “And I’m eager to see what you can do.” Boston looked around Dak’s tall frame, checking the street in all directions. “You weren’t followed, were you?”
Dak snorted and shook his head. “No. I wasn’t followed.”
“Are you sure? We’re going to be dealing with some potentially dangerous characters if you get the gig.”
“If I get the gig?” Dak mused.
“Okay, you’re probably going to get it. Come on. I’ll let you meet my parents, then we can get down to business.”
Impressed and still a little confused by the enigmatic boy, Dak nodded and followed him into the house. Boston closed the door behind him and locked it before leading the way to the left into the kitchen. A wide living room with white walls and black shelves to the right connected to a corridor that led toward the rear of the house.
Dak was immediately overwhelmed with the smells of onions and peppers, and something he thought might be beef, but slightly different.
“My mom is making veggie tacos,” Boston said as he closed the door.
Dak frowned behind the boy’s back as he led the way into the kitchen. This has to be the most surreal thing I’ve ever done, he thought.
He followed the boy into the kitchen, still uncertain if he should just walk in like this. Mrs. McClaren was the first to look up. Her golden hair hung in three knotted braids on the back of her head. She wore a light blue T-shirt with a white flower-covered apron over it. She busily stirred a pan loaded with what looked like ground beef but Dak realized was a vegetarian version. Still, the aromas hanging in the room caused his mouth to water.
“Oh hi,” the woman at the stove said. “You must be Dak. Nice to meet you.” She flashed a welcoming smile at him but kept stirring the meat. “Excuse me for not shaking your hand. Gotta keep this moving around so it doesn’t overcook.”
“Not a problem.”
“Nice to meet you,” Boston’s father said from near the refrigerator. He chopped onions and peppers with a large kitchen knife, not unlike the one Dak had used earlier that morning. He figured that was a detail these people didn’t need to know.
“Nice to meet you, too,” Dak said.
“I’m John and this is Shelly. You’re welcome to have lunch with us if you like. It should be ready in a few minutes.”
“I’m not that hungry,” Dak lied, trying to be polite.
“Well, if you change your mind, you’re welcome to stay.”
“Thanks,” Dak said. “I appreciate that.”
John was a few inches under six feet tall, slightly taller than his wife. The man had scruffy brown hair with hints of blond underneath it. His jeans and Tennessee Volunteers T-shirt completed a casual ensemble that could be worn comfortably at home or at the grocery store.
“Come on,” Boston urged, reaching out to pull the newcomer through the house. “Let’s go to my office.”
“Yeah. I have an office. I know that must be weird for you to hear since I’m twelve. I get that a lot. Other kids have playrooms. I have an office.”
Dak looked around as if lost for the first time in his life. He raised his eyebrows as if to say something, then lazily shook his head. “Lead the way, boss.”
Boston chuckled a little and walked down a short hallway before turning left into a white room. Black shelves contained collectible action figures and objects from science fiction movies and television series. A few superheroes from the comics universe were also present on his desk in the middle of the left-hand wall. The room, however, was remarkably clean, and Dak had a difficult time believing it was really the boy’s.
“So, just for future reference,” Dak began, settling in a club chair near the door, “I don’t think it’s smart for us to meet a lot in person like this.” Actually, I can’t believe your parents are letting you meet with a complete stranger you found on the internet. He kept that thought to himself.
“First of all,” Boston said as he took a seat in his white ergonomic desk chair, “I cleared everything with them. Second, I’m a good judge of character.”
“I did my research on you.”
“You did?” Dak sounded more surprised than he intended. The kid was disarming; Dak had to give him that.
“Of course,” Boston spun around and hovered over the keyboard at his computer. In seconds, his fingers flew across the keys, pecking away rapidly. Then the computer monitor on the right flicked to life. Two others remained dark.
“You think you have enough screens there, kid?” Dak asked, joking.
“Any more than this, and it gets distracting,” Boston said. “One is for my live-streams so people can see me while I play. I answer questions from other players, give tips, that sort of thing while they watch.”
Humbled, Dak chewed on his lower lip.
“So, let’s talk about your first assignment,” Boston went on.
“Wait,” Dak stopped him. “Isn’t there anything else you’d like to know about me? Who I am? What I do for a living? Maybe I’m a serial killer.”
Boston chuckled. “Like I said, I did my research. And my research is always thorough. I know you were Delta Force. That’s no small feat to get in with those guys. That special ops group is the kind of team they make movies or television series about. I know that you were wrongly accused, based on some public info I found. And that your name was cleared.”
Dak hoped the kid didn’t know about his quest to exact revenge on the men who’d betrayed him. Then again, how would he know? That kind of thing wasn’t the sort of stuff that made the papers.
Dak stumbled for words. “Um, okay. So, what does this gig pay, exactly?”
“Great question. It depends on the item and how hard it will take to get. This first one pays fifty grand. If that’s okay.”
Dak felt himself lean back in the chair at the statement. “Fifty? What are you wanting me to do, raid Fort Knox?”
“Nothing so crazy,” Boston reassured. “Although Peru can be tricky.”
“Peru? What’s in Peru?”
The boy’s eyebrows shot up, and he gazed back at his guest with wide open eyes. “What isn’t in Peru? It’s the home of Machu Picchu, the Nazca Lines, and tons of history. Not to mention Lima is perched right on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. I really want to visit there someday.”
Dak stared at his host, still trying to process the conversation. “Sounds like you have a thing for Peru.”
“History and travel in general.” Boston replied.
“I see. So, what am I going there for… exactly?”
“An artifact that’s been missing for almost five hundred years. It’s a weapon, actually. You’ll have to be careful. Not that I need to tell you. Peru can be a dangerous place, from what I hear. I mean, for tourists it isn’t, but for what I’m looking for, you will likely see the worst of it. For a guy like you, though, it should be a piece of cake.”
“You’re not exactly selling the job very well. How do you know I’m interested in getting into a dangerous situation? And what cake, exactly, am I trying to get a slice of?”
Boston flashed a mischievous grin and turned back to his computer. He clicked on the mouse, the screen blinked, and a new image appeared.
A shiny sword appeared on the monitor. The long, slender blade occupied the screen from top to bottom, with an ornate, curling hand guard just above the grip.
Dak leaned closer to get a better look.
“That’s a replica,” he said, disappointment evident as he eased back in his chair.
“I know it’s a replica,” Boston said with an eye roll. “Of course it’s a replica. Like I said, no one has seen the real one in almost five hundred years.”
“I don’t understand.”
Boston took a breath and sighed. “This is a replica of the sword carried by the conquistador Francisco Pizarro. I want you to find it and bring it back to me.”
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