When CIA operative Jenny Silkwell is murdered in rural Maine, government officials have immediate concerns over national security. Her laptop and phone were full of state secrets that, in the wrong hands, endanger the lives of countless operatives. In need of someone who can solve the murder quickly and retrieve the missing information, the U.S. government knows just the chameleon they can call on.
Ex-Army Ranger Travis Devine spent his time in the military preparing to take on any scenario, followed by his short-lived business career chasing shadows in the deepest halls of power, so his analytical mind makes him particularly well-suited for complex, high-stakes tasks. Taking down the world’s largest financial conspiracy proved his value, and in comparison, this case looks straightforward. Except small towns hold secrets and Devine finds himself an outsider again.
Devine must ingratiate himself with locals who have trusted each other their whole lives, and who distrust outsiders just as much. Dak, Jenny’s brother, who’s working to revitalize the town. Earl, the retired lobsterman who found Jenny’s body. And Alex, Jenny’s sister with a dark past of her own. As Devine gets to know the residents of Putnam, Maine, answers seem to appear and then transform into more questions. There’s a long history of secrets and those who will stop at nothing to keep them from being exposed. Leaving Devine with no idea who he can trust... and who wants him dead.
Release date: November 14, 2023
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing
Print pages: 461
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PASSENGER TRAIN TRAVEL WAS NOT known to be particularly dangerous, especially in Europe where the machines soared like the wind on rigorously sculpted rails that translated to silky smooth rides. There were many departures a day between Geneva and Milan operated by several railway companies; one could travel early in the morning or later at night. The trains ran at a maximum speed of two hundred kilometers per hour, while their passengers napped, worked, binged shows on streaming platforms, or ate and drank in considerable comfort. This particular ride was a bullet-nosed silver Astoro tilt train operated by Trenitalia. None of the hundred-plus passengers was contemplating dying today.
Except for one.
As far as Travis Devine was concerned this ride was fraught with peril of the kind that would not send you to a hospital, but rather a half dozen feet into the cold earth. The source of the danger had nothing to do with the train. It had been ferreted out by his well-honed situational awareness, which had led him to conclude that his life was in imminent jeopardy.
The trip from Geneva to Milan contained beautiful scenery: the soaring, snow-capped Swiss Alps, the lush, verdant valleys, immaculate, aromatic vineyards, two pristine lakes, and the quaint, picturesque villages of Europe ladled in between the two venerable cities. Devine cared nothing about this as he sat in his first-class seat upholstered in brown leather staring at seemingly nothing, while actually taking in everything inside the train car. And there was a lot to observe.
Devine checked his watch. On some trains this trip could take five hours and a quarter, but he was on an express ride that would do it in just under four. He had ninety minutes of that trip left, and maybe that same number of ticks to live. Devine would have preferred a packed train car, but his tight escape from Geneva had not allowed for any latitude on the travel time, and this early in the morning there were only three other passengers in the first-class car. The attendants had already been through checking tickets. Despite this being first class, food was not served at the seat, but there was a dining car between the first- and second-class sections. The attendants were now off somewhere else as the train had settled into the second half of its journey south.
Alpha, Bravo, and Charlie. It was how the former U.S. Army Ranger Devine referred to the three other passengers. Two men, one woman. Not passengers, at least not to him.
Adversaries. Bogies. The enemy.
The men were sitting together in seats facing each other, forward of Devine’s position, near the front of the car. The woman was on the other side of the aisle, two up from him. She looked like a student. Textbooks stacked high, a bulky rucksack in a storage rack behind her; she was drawing something in a sketchbook. But Devine had been fooled by people posing as students before.
The men wore thick overcoats against the climate just outside the slender train windows. Overcoats that could hide a lot.
Devine had gotten up and gone to the bathroom twice now, but only once to relieve himself; the other was solely for recon. He had also gotten some food in the dining car and brought it back to his seat. Each time after returning, Devine had glanced at his gear bag, which was behind him on a luggage rack.
And the third time he saw what he thought he would.
On his phone he brought up his train’s journey, saw its exact route, its progression, and most critically its timing. Of particular note was the Simplon Tunnel, which they would enter after passing through the Swiss town of Brig. When they exited the tunnel they would be in Italy. The article he was now reading said that the tunnel was twelve miles long and would take the train eight minutes to pass through. The tunnel had opened in 1906 and had given its name to perhaps the most famous train in the world, the Simplon-Orient-Express.
Devine wasn’t interested
in the history; he was focused on the tunnel.
He texted a high-priority message to an interested party and then checked his watch.
He had caught Alpha and Bravo staring at him, at different times, but he had made no reaction. These were known, in Devine’s world, as target glances. Charlie, who was wearing a Madrid Real ballcap, had never looked at him, but she had surreptitiously eyed the two men while getting something from her bag. Her movements were mildly tensed, even robotic, he’d observed. She was trying overly hard to appear normal, which was causing her anxiety. Stress activated the sympathetic nervous system, the flight-fight-or-freeze part of the body that present-day humankind could thank its cavemen ancestors for. Fear did things to a body physiologically. The mind could screw with you in ways you could hardly imagine. In trying to save you, its stressor signals could actually kill you with a heart attack or render you incapable of saving yourself. Or, in his case, blow a plan to kill someone right out of the water, and give the potential victim a chance to survive.
Devine analyzed the situation exactly as he had been trained to do, every contingency, every weak point. The men had never removed their overcoats even though the climate inside was quite comfortable. In fact, Devine had taken his parka off because he had felt warm.
Keeping their hands in their pockets, in particular, was an informed tell of malevolent intent, because hands were a necessary accompaniment to a primary weapon, usually a gun. And they had target-glanced Devine not once but twice. Finally, they had never left their seats as far as he could tell. There were no food or drink containers at their tables. That completed the Rule of Three for Devine. A trio of behavior patterns that were out of the ordinary meant you needed to come up with a plan if you wanted to walk away under your own power.
Well, I’ve got at least four warning signs here, because of what I saw on my gear bag, so I need to get my shit together.
Devine checked his watch once more and then eyed his bag. After he’d gone to the dining car he’d come back to find that the zipper was three teeth above where he had left it; and, in just the right light, he had seen the whorls of a thumbprint on the pull tab, a thumbprint that was assuredly not his. There was nothing in his bag other than clothes and a toiletry kit; otherwise, he never would have left it unguarded. He was also kicking himself for not bringing a gun with him on this trip, but that would have been problematic for a number of reasons.
At the border station of Domodossola a contingent of the Swiss Guard boarded to do a customs check. Devine was asked if he had anything to declare and how much cash he had on his person, and he had to
show his passport. He watched carefully without seeming to as they asked the same of the other three passengers. He couldn’t see the passports of the two men, but the woman’s appeared to be a post-Brexit UK blue and gold, which mimicked the original colors that had been in place on British passports since 1921.
Later, he eyed the window as the train began slowing. They pulled into the town of Brig. No one got on in first class, and no one got off, except for the Swiss Guard contingent. For a moment Devine thought about exiting the train, too, or telling them of his concerns with the other passengers. However, he had his plan now and he was sticking to it. And he wasn’t trusting anyone right now, not even the Swiss Guard. The opponents he was battling had the resources to buy pretty much anyone and anything.
And these foes of his had great incentive to wish Devine harm. Working on behalf of the United States, Devine had helped foil a ballsy attempt by some powerful if unscrupulous interests to promote global unrest for pure profit, with the added kicker of overthrowing several governments hostile to the players behind this scheme. It seemed as long as people lusted for wealth and power, this crap would just keep happening. And one day they might just succeed in taking over the world, thought Devine.
The train glided away from the station. The two attendants came through, and then, seeing no new passengers, or anything that needed their attention, other than Devine handing one of them the trash from his meal, they left through the opposite end of the train car to do whatever attendants did when their official work was done.
The train speed was posted on a digital screen attached to the bulkhead at the front of the car. Devine watched it rise to 180 kilometers an hour before it started to drop. He did the mile-to-kilometer calculation in his head to arrive at the length of time the train would be in the Simplon Tunnel.
Twelve miles is nineteen kilometers. Doing that in eight minutes would mean a constant speed of… right.
He looked at the screen again. One hundred and sixty kilometers… one fifty-three… one forty-two point…
He put on his parka and rose just as the train entered the tunnel; now the only real illumination came from the interior car lights. Devine strode up the aisle to the toilet in the connecting vestibule. As he passed the woman he glanced down at what she was drawing in charcoal.
Okay, that makes sense. And it’s nice to have at least partial confirmation.
But the real proof is about to come, and it will be unequivocal.
Devine started to combat-breathe: inhale for a four count, hold for four, exhale for four, and hold for four. Repeat. This would stop his sympathetic nervous system from kicking on, wiping out his peripheral vision, blowing to shit his fine motor skills, and turning him into a big dumb animal just waiting to be killed. He would die on
day just like everyone else, but it would never happen like that.
He passed by Alpha and Bravo, neither of whom looked at him. The automatic doors slid open with a hydraulic sigh, and Devine entered the vestibule. The toilet was off to the right, just out of eyeline of the passengers.
A few moments later the toilet door opened and a few moments later it closed.
The big men rose as though tied together by string and headed after Devine.
As they walked they screwed suppressor cans onto the muzzles of overkill German-made machine pistols pulled from their overcoat pockets. They reached the vestibule, where they could hear water running, and someone talking inside the toilet. They took aim and fired right through the flimsy toilet door. The sounds of the suppressed rounds were covered by the enhanced roar of the train going through the tunnel, which was why they had waited until now to do the deed. They shot in tight patterns, high to low and in between, followed by crisscrossed streams; they were fields of fire that left no room for survival in the confined space. With sixty rounds total, death of the target was guaranteed.
While Bravo covered him, Alpha nudged open the wrecked door, just to make sure, since their kill contract required it, along with an iPhone pic of the corpse texted to their employer.
However, all he saw was an empty toilet with the water tap wedged on. And a phone on the floor and leaning against the wall next to the toilet; a podcast was playing on the device.
At that moment the door to the storage closet opposite the toilet swung open and caught Bravo at the right temple.
Having let them empty out their weapons, Devine was now the predator. Where each man stood Devine’s goal was to claim that ground. And the only way to do that was to go through them.
Devine opened his campaign with twin-thumb eye gouges that blinded Bravo. Devine next formed a V with his hand, the thumb on one side and the four fingers on the other, and slammed the hard groove of the flesh between them against the man’s throat, collapsing his trachea. This was followed by twin crushing elbow strikes to the right side of the cervical spine that snapped two of the man’s vertebrae, cutting off his brain from the rest of his body. He dropped to the floor out of the fight and also out of life. This continuous, fluid movement had taken all of four seconds.
Devine next trapped a stunned Alpha and his machine pistol against the doorjamb of the toilet as the man tried to slap in a fresh mag. Devine made the gun fall from his hand by wrenching it downward and then to the side past the joint’s limits with cartilage-cracking torque.
Alpha should have already reloaded and attempted to shoot Devine, but the man’s breathing was ragged as his adrenal glands flooded his bloodstream with cortisol, fouling his mind-body connection. His pupils went from two millimeters to nine in less than a breath; his peripheral vision was completely blown. Devine already knew he was going to win this fight, because none of that was happening to him. His cognitive, and hence his fighting, skills were operating fine.
Alpha awkwardly swung at Devine and caught him a glancing blow on the jaw. It was not hard enough to do any real damage, and the panicked man had forced himself off balance with the move. Two punishing elbow slams to the exposed right kidney dropped Alpha to his knees. Devine grabbed him by the collar and flung him headfirst against the train wall once and then again. The desperate man, perhaps sensing his own imminent death, pulled a knife and spun around, and the blade slashed against Devine’s arm. But his aim was shaky and thus off, and Devine’s thick parka took most of the damage.
Okay, time to end this. And him.
Devine broke the man’s grip on the knife and it clattered to the floor. He then slapped the man’s right ear with such force, the eardrum burst. The man seized up, presenting his face directly to Devine, who used a palm strike on his nose, hitting him once and then again with the cup of his hand, releasing all the kinetic energy from his brawny arm, shoulder, broad back, and thrust hip. This streamlined attack delivered massive torque that propelled the nose’s brittlely sharp cartilage straight into Alpha’s soft brain tissue. He dropped to the floor face first. Just to be certain, Devine reached down and broke the man’s neck in the exact way the U.S. Army had taught him.
Devine dragged both dead men and their weapons into the toilet, turned off the water, retrieved his phone, and wedged the shot-riddled door shut.
Fighting wasn’t just knowing certain techniques, although that was important; it was mostly an evolved state of mind. Without that, enhanced hand-to-hand combat skills meant squat because you would be too cowed to employ them. And the very concept of self-defense was a losing proposition, pretty much conceding the field and making you a victim in waiting. You didn’t defend, you attacked. You didn’t stop someone from hurting or killing you. You hurt or you killed. Them.
Rubbing his bruised jaw and gingerly touching his cut arm, which he instinctively knew wasn’t that serious, he reentered the train car to see Charlie staring at him.
“What happened?” she exclaimed, her eyes agog. “What was that noise?”
All right, thought Devine, this is where the rubber meets the road.
As he walked toward her Devine glanced for a moment in the train window, which reflected the interior because they were still in the Simplon Tunnel for at least another few minutes. He saw what he needed to see.
He shrugged. “Two guys. Real mess in the toilet. Going to be quite a cleanup.”
“My goodness. Is there anything I can do?”
Her neck muscles
were now relaxed, he noted, pupils normal, breathing the same. She was a cut above the deceased goons back there.
Devine stopped next to her, looked down at the drawing, and said, “Yeah, you could explain why you’ve been sitting here for over two hours working away and you haven’t added a damn thing to your sketch.”
She half rose and swung the long-bladed knife up from her lap, but Devine had already seen the weapon in the window reflection. He didn’t waste any time on a defensive block. He simply clocked her in the jaw, lifting her far smaller body off the floor and knocking her against the wall. She slumped down into unconsciousness from the force of his blow and her collision with the wall. Devine momentarily pondered whether to finish the job. But she was young and might repent of her evil ways. He took the knife, slid her ballcap down, draped her hair around her slender shoulders, and propped her up against her seat as though she were merely napping.
He grabbed his gear bag and walked into the dining car, and then through the second-class carriages until he reached the last car, where he slipped her knife into a trash receptacle. The train cleared the tunnel, and when it slowed and stopped at Stresa, the last station before Milan, Devine got off. The text he had sent earlier paid dividends when the black sedan picked him up. The driver would take Devine the rest of the way to Milan. There he would catch a flight back to the United States, where another mission surely awaited.
As he glanced back at the train, Devine wondered whether he had made a mistake in allowing the woman to live.
The answer wouldn’t be long in coming. ...
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