“I can help you find the man who killed your wife.”
It’s the last thing Jake Parker expects to hear from an old friend from his military days at West Point, Lt Colonel Douglas McDonnell. Officially, Jake’s wife Mel was an unlucky bystander during a sudden terrorist attack, but Jake has always felt there was a missing piece of the puzzle. When McDonnell tells him that his team has been tracking the group responsible, it’s Jake’s opportunity to finally lay Mel’s ghost to rest.
McDonnell believes that the terrorist cell is linked to one of the big pharma companies operating out of Puerto Rico, and he needs Jake’s skills on his team for one specific task: find the link and take them down. But as soon as Jake arrives, the plan begins to crumble. Focused on targeting the group members one at a time, the team on the ground won’t listen to Jake’s insistence that they look at the bigger picture.
When Jake meets bio-chemist Veronique, they hit it off. But when she confesses her fears that her employer is manufacturing a drug for the US market with deadly side effects, Jake realises that the terrorists have raised the stakes, and more innocent lives are at risk if he doesn’t act fast. Then Veronique is kidnapped. Unable to trust anyone around him, Jake is pushed as never before to find Vero while taking down the evil organisation before they strike at the US population…
A non-stop action thriller from a USA Today bestselling author. An unputdownable read for fans of David Baldacci, I Am Pilgrim and Jack Ryan.
Readers love Nick Thacker:
“Non-stop GO from the beginning! The good guys are easy to identify with and the baddies are very bad indeed!… READ the book!!!” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“There are thrillers and there are THRILLERS. This is the latter… I actually had to lay this down a few times so I could catch my breath.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“I stayed up till 1.30am to finish it.” B for Bookreview, 5 stars
“Watch out Lee Childs and James Rollins!!!… a fast-paced page-turner… You will have a hard time putting it down.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“One of the best thrillers I've read… The pace never slows… A page-turner from beginning to end.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“Fast-paced and punchy… filled with action with a race against time… moves like lightning and the end is a shocker!… It’ll have you on the edge of your seat.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 stars
“I couldn’t put this book down. Had me hooked from the first page.” Goodreads reviewer
“Great story, great characters, [was] holding my breath through many scenes…
Release date: January 8, 2021
Print pages: 350
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Jake Parker stared straight ahead, into the eyes of the man seated across the table from him. He didn’t move, and neither did Jake. For a moment, time stood still.
He had known this man for over fifteen years, and there had never been a time when Jake doubted him. But he had to be lying.
The newly minted Lieutenant Colonel Douglas McDonnell was an old friend from his West Point days and they were meeting at the same hot dog restaurant he and Jake had often visited after a game back in college—Pete’s Hot Dog Stand, a no-nonsense family-owned restaurant that had been serving tube steaks for longer than Jake could remember. Today, it was a traditional Chicago-style dog, done up right and served with a steaming pot of coffee. The coffee was good, with just enough heat to tickle the back of his throat without being overpowering.
McDonnell had sat perfectly still while eating and while he spoke, though not many words had been exchanged thus far. They’d barely gotten through the pleasantries when their food was ready, and neither man seemed to be interested in discussing anything over a mouthful of food. He had already finished his dog and now had his mug of coffee in front of him—black, a requirement for any career Army man—which he held with two hands, watching Jake. No doubt measuring his reaction to his statement.
“Tell me more,” Jake said quietly. He pulled his own mug up to his lips and took a sip. It was a larger sip than he had intended, and the hot liquid stung the roof of his mouth. Still, he didn’t flinch.
McDonnell finally moved, shifting in his chair as he began to speak once again. “It’s been a long time since we’ve talked, Parker,” he said. “You look like the same man who walked off the ice after that last game junior year.”
“You mean hobbled off the ice,” Jake said. The last college hockey game he’d played at West Point had ended in disaster for him. Just short of needing a full knee replacement, Jake had never fully recovered from the injury. While he no longer walked with a limp, his hopes and dreams of going pro had been dashed by a single dirty hit on the ice.
“I bet you still have it in you, though,” McDonnell said. “I bet you could take me one-on-one right now—”
“What about my wife,” Jake said, the words stilted and forced, and sounding slightly more intense than he had anticipated. But he didn’t try to retract the statement. He’d meant it, tone and all. He didn’t want to offend McDonnell, but he also wasn’t going to pretend that he hadn’t heard what his friend had said.
He took a breath and tried to calm himself down. McDonnell was a friend—he needed to remember that.
Like Jake, Douglas McDonnell had entered the Army after college. There, however, their careers branched apart as the two men became successful in their respective fields: Jake in international military intelligence and McDonnell in computer information systems, specifically defense hardware and software.
Jake had heard McDonnell’s name mentioned a few times since then, most notably for his recent promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, as well as for stepping into a new role with the United States Army’s new counterterrorism division based in Washington, DC.
Jake hadn’t realized, though, that McDonnell knew of his wife’s death. So many people had written cards and sent flowers when she had lost her life in the aftermath of a terrorist attack on the city of Boston that he had never bothered to pay attention to who was sending them. If McDonnell had in fact reached out to him three years ago, Jake didn’t remember.
The wound from his wife’s passing was no longer fresh, but it certainly had not completely healed. He wondered if McDonnell thought otherwise, or was somehow trying to get a rise out of him.
“I didn’t know you knew,” Jake said.
McDonnell nodded. “I’m sorry I never met her. She sounded incredible. I was devastated for you when I heard about it.”
“Thank you,” Jake replied automatically. “Now tell me what you think you know about Mel’s death.”
McDonnell shifted again as he took a sip from his mug. He swallowed, then looked back up at Jake. “I’m on a new project. It’s related to fighting terrorism—tracking gang-related activity—and there’s a little bit more I can tell you about it, but…”
Jake nodded. He knew the drill. Agree to the terms, accept them—then they would bring him into the fold. Refuse, and he would be left wondering what exactly McDonnell’s project was all about and what this man knew about his wife’s death.
McDonnell continued. “You remember the trial after her death?” As soon he said it, he winced. “Sorry, of course you do. What I meant was, do you remember that it was not really the Boston Police Department itself the state was trying to go after for mishandling the terrorist attack? Because of the nature of it—it was a bomb in Boston, but linked to an international terrorism cell—it was specifically the counterterrorism unit within the department the state wanted raked over the coals.”
“Yeah, but they had trouble drilling down to them specifically, so the entire department was laid bare and on display, just like I was. It was a public massacre, McDonnell.”
“I know, I know. And I promise I’m not trying to dredge up old memories for the hell of it. Jake, the reason the counterterrorism unit was the target of the investigation was that, at the time, my project was investigating a gang based in Puerto Rico called Dominguez that we thought was beginning to operate inside US borders.”
“And were they?”
“Yes, we are now one hundred percent sure that they were. At the time, we didn’t know that for a fact; we didn’t even know where they were based. I’ve been tracking them since I took over the project two years ago, so I wasn’t around when the trial was happening. I know the state paid you two million and called the trial a victory, but…”
“But you think it was a little ‘shut up’ money? That it was meant to silence me?”
McDonnell arched an eyebrow. “Did it?”
Jake took a moment before he responded to the question. He knew what McDonnell was implying—that the state had awarded him money not simply because his side had won the trial, and not simply because reparations needed to be made for Mel’s death, but because they also did not want Jake investigating further into the matter.
“I see,” Jake said. “You think the state wanted to keep me quiet?”
McDonnell shrugged. “You’ll never see it written anywhere, and anyone you ask will deny it point-blank, but, sure. It’s how these things work, Jake. I mean, in your detective career, you know that. Hell, you saw a bit of it during your stint as an intelligence officer.”
“Okay,” Jake said, “I’ll bite. So the gang you are tracking now is the same one you believe had something to do with the terror attack that led to Mel’s death? That she was some sort of collateral damage?”
“Exactly, yeah. Boston PD’s counterterrorism unit, in my mind, should have been charged with criminal negligence. That bomb would not have gone off when it did if the department hadn’t rushed the operation’s intelligence-gathering. I know the unit’s lead got a slap on the wrist, and a few others were put on probation, but my project simply could not allow all of the information to go public, so our hands were tied. If the cell we are tracking knew how much we actually have on them, the case would be open and shut—and not in a good way. We think there’s another attack coming in a few days or so—a big one. I want your help preventing it.”
“Okay, so what you’re telling me is that Mel was accidentally killed in the explosion, but that the explosion itself was not an accident.”
McDonnell shook his head. “No, Jake,” he said. “I don’t think it was an accident at all.”
McDonnell continued after a final sip of his coffee. “On March second of that year, the team got word that a high-profile member of the gang was on US soil. I can’t give you any more than that at this point. Rest assured, we believed the intelligence, and we acted on it.”
McDonnell’s eyes fell quickly, then lifted back up and pierced through Jake. Jake knew what was going through the man’s head. Still, it hurt him more than McDonnell could ever know. More than the man could ever understand.
“McDonnell, are you telling me it could have been prevented? That Mel may not have—” He stopped, then tried to collect himself. “Sorry. You weren’t even on the case at the time. There’s nothing you specifically could have done.”
“I know, but dammit, Jake, if we weren’t close. My predecessor on the project—now my boss—had everything in the bag. The case was easy—we were tracking this guy from the moment he stepped off the plane. We had him pegged and ready to go all week, it was all lined up, and then…”
“And then you lost track of him,” Jake said, filling in the blanks.
McDonnell nodded. “Yeah. About three hours before the explosion at the café. Jake, we had him. We were moving people into position, ready to bring him in, and then he just… disappeared. And when the explosion happened, it threw everything off. Naturally, it got a little out of control and my project team was no longer the only investigative committee interested in this cell. The rest, well, you know most of it.”
Jake nodded. “Nothing ever goes according to plan, I guess?”
McDonnell cracked a smile, but his eyes remained solemn and steady. “No, nothing ever goes according to plan. But guys like you and me—you know how it is. We never stop planning anyway. There’s always one more thing we can try. One more thing we can do.”
Jake felt the shift in the conversation, anticipating it. The ask. “All right, what’s the one more thing? I want to know everything. Whatever it is, bring me in. Whoever you need to convince, just tell them my name. Recent events have made me sort of a public figure again, and I have a feeling my reputation’s value is high enough that I can get whatever clearance I need. I used to have it, and after the mess with the virus and ICE I just helped sort out, I think I’ve got a little sway.”
“Well, that’s true, but there’s no convincing I need to do. It’s my call to make, and I’ve made it. And you won’t need a higher clearance.”
“Okay, so what is it, then? What do you want me to do?”
“Parker, I need your help with something. I need you to figure out what the attack’s going to be, specifically. We have some rough details based on previous attacks. I want you to figure out when it’s going to happen, and then help my team on the ground stop it. Like I said, the decision’s as good as made. You know how things work, though—we’ll have to get you through some of the red tape and officially onto the project before I can give you actual details to move on, but that’s the gist of the mission.”
Jake frowned. “Why can’t you do it yourself?”
“We can, Jake. In time. But I’d rather do it sooner than later, and I’ve got two really good reasons for bringing you on, specifically. Firstly, this is what you did after West Point. This was your job—international intelligence as it specifically related to terrorism. Your career after that in Boston as a detective is just icing on the cake. You were an exemplary officer, and with your recent success bringing down Derek Briggs, there was absolutely no resistance to bringing you onto this case.”
“Okay,” Jake said. He shook off the pang of anger as he remembered the ex-director of Immigration Customs and Enforcement, and how he had manufactured a virus that nearly wiped out thousands of Americans. “And what’s the second reason?”
McDonnell eyed his empty coffee cup for a few seconds, then started to speak. “The second is that for you, this is personal. It’s about Mel. And I know this for a fact: when things are personal, we make sure they get done. Sometimes when things are personal, it makes it harder to do the job, but somehow I have a feeling that’s not going to be the case with you. I can’t think of a better person to have on the team. Just what we need to breathe life into the investigation again.”
McDonnell was implying that his leads had begun to dry up, or that the terrorist organization they were hunting had somehow given them the slip once again, but Jake knew he’d get all the details later. “Okay, fine. How exactly can I help?”
McDonnell nodded a few times, as if physically shifting his mind to the next task on his list. “Well, we know the what of it: we know what explosives were used, and we’ve traced them back to Dominguez. We know the how: again, we’ve got surveillance tapes and credit card statements, plane ticket purchases, the works. We even know the who—”
“You know specifically who did it?” Jake asked.
McDonnell shook his head. “No, we need you to find that out. But we do know who they were targeting in Boston—sort of. We have video of a man entering the café. It’s the only person not found in any other records. We couldn’t cross-reference him anywhere. No credit card transactions from him from the café’s books. But we think he was the target of the bombers. We think he was the person the terrorists were going after in their attack. We’ve got a grainy picture of him, but other than that, he’s a ghost.” McDonnell paused. “We had a way to figure out this attack in Boston three years ago was related to Dominguez—a deal that soured, for whatever reason, and Dominguez wanted to take this guy out of the picture, and we also just found evidence to suggest there’s going to be another attack. We need to know if this ghost was really their target. How exactly he was involved in this. We figure that out, we understand a lot more about the case. If we can understand more about the case, we are that much closer to taking these guys down and preventing the next one.”
“So you have a motive,” Jake said.
McDonnell nodded, then waited for Jake to meet his eyes. “So that’s it, then. That’s the whole story, at least the bird’s-eye view. Come in tomorrow and I’ll fill you in on the details and you can meet some of the US-based team. Right now it’s only three of us, but we do have operatives in a few spots around the world.”
“Okay, I’m in,” Jake said. “I’ll do it. I’ll figure out who’s behind these attacks, and who’s pulling the strings.”
McDonnell nodded once and started to rise from the table. All army, all business, all the time. He hadn’t changed a bit, and Jake appreciated the man’s ability to maintain his calm, collected exterior. It was a trait he appreciated in all of the military men and women he had worked with.
They shook hands, then Jake brought both mugs to the counter at the front of the coffee shop. The hostess who had served them smiled at him as she set the mugs into the basin. He nodded in return, then turned to find that McDonnell had already left the building.
I can help you find the man who killed your wife.
The words had stuck with Jake, and McDonnell had used them specifically to entice Jake to join his project. It wasn’t manipulative, it was strategic. He knew McDonnell’s mission was slightly different—he was interested in stopping the next terrorist attack this gang was planning. But he’d known how Jake would react to selling it with the promise that he could get closer to those who had killed Mel. He had shown his cards up front, knowing that everything he was about to tell Jake was time-sensitive, and he had wanted to cut to the chase immediately. Jake wasn’t angry—he appreciated that about McDonnell, too.
If what McDonnell had said was true—and he had no reason to doubt him—Jake was going to be one step closer to a bit of closure.
He had a job, he had a mission. And that mission began with a single task.
Find the ghost.
Cecil Romero Gonzalez II looked around at the dilapidated building. Nondescript, ancient brick walls framed a mostly empty rectangle, three stories tall with boarded-up windows. He could see the worn, rusted metal rafters of the roof, far above his head.
He sighed. I thought I was done with work like this. He had spent the last seventeen years of his life working toward the eventual goal all the members of his team aimed for: to retire on the beach, a frozen drink in hand, flush with cash and not enough time to spend it.
But it seemed he had taken a few steps back somewhere along the line. He had joined the gang as a teenager, a high-school dropout with a high-enough IQ to quickly become one of the leaders of the organization’s drug-running division. The position had promised a fast-track to success, a route through the winding pathways of organized crime that would eventually end near the top of the food chain.
He was, clearly, not there yet.
Cecil shook his head and turned his gaze back to the workers spread out around the interior of the old building. He was in charge of a group of young men who had recently arrived from Puerto Rico, his own home country. Their job was simple: process the never-ending stream of contraband coming into the United States from their home island. From there, it was Cecil’s main task to dole out the goods to local gangs and organizations that would then resell the items and illicit materials for their profit.
It was easy work for the most part, but it lacked the prestige and promise he had envisioned.
Cecil walked past the manned tables, spread out in a grid-like pattern across the weathered concrete floor, where the workers unpacked the boxes and organized the contraband into smaller stacks. The building was once some sort of textile factory, and it still boasted a massive iron machine along the back wall of the room, long since dead and inoperative. Cecil didn’t know what the machine was for, but when he had first purchased the old building from the previous owners, there were stacks of cloth and tiny square pieces of fabric strewn about. Nothing had been cleaned up, and now the fabric shards and cobwebs mingled together in corners and beneath table legs.
Cecil had a small office to call his own, but it was still far from glamorous. It didn’t seem to give him any elevated authority, as his men would simply barge in to talk with him no matter how small the issue or how long he had been inside, behind the closed door. He had hoped the office would bring him more respect, but so far he had been treated at best like their peer, a man only a few years their senior.
He reached the office and closed the door once again, knowing it would do nothing to persuade anyone to knock. He walked across to the back of the desk—a simple folding table, much like the ones the men were using out on the floor—and picked up his cell phone.
The company that had technically bought the building was nothing but an untraceable umbrella corporation—a typical US-based LLC that captured smaller businesses and tucked them away behind legality and tax codes, safely hidden from the prying eyes of local and state authorities. The company was called—on paper at least—Integrated Consolidated Holdings, LLC, a properly vague name that would allow the gang to operate on US soil without trouble, as long as they stayed out of trouble. The name was a brainchild of Cecil himself, and he was proud of it.
He held the cell phone up and saw the lock screen—a simple logo featuring the letters of the company, ICH, emblazoned on it—and unlocked it. He navigated to his boss’s contact information in the recent calls, and pressed connect.
Within a few rings, his boss answered.
“Good afternoon, Cecil.” The man’s voice was low, lower than Cecil’s younger-sounding voice, and he often wondered if the man—only thirty-five, two years older than Cecil—had reached his position just because of his good looks and deep, confident voice.
Cecil cleared his throat and tried to drop his own baritone a few notes. “Hello, Rodrigo. I am calling to update the company on the most recent delivery.”
“Everything is in line and as it should be, I gather?”
“Yes, of course. The delivery was late, due to a slower port authority changeover, but it was nothing I could not handle.”
“Of course,” Rodrigo said. “Thank you. Is there anything else?”
Cecil swallowed. This is it. The reason for his call. He had agonized over this decision for the past three nights, knowing that the best opportunity he would ever have for advancing his career in the gang would be to take ownership of a project and provide his superiors with good ideas and sound investments.
And he thought he had such an investment.
“Rodrigo—sir,” he began, sliding into formality to stress the importance of the conversation, “I have been studying the delivery patterns and I believe I can make some… improvements.” He was considered young, but he had been involved enough—and was shrewd enough—to know that any attempt at improving something about his organization could also be easily seen as a way to insult the person who had come up with the thing he was improving.
“Improvements? I’m intrigued.”
“Well, sir, I have a good understanding of the clientele now, and I believe our location here can be expanded, at little cost to us in the short-term, but at great profit to us within a year.”
There was a pause. Cecil knew that Rodrigo had been instrumental in locating and procuring this building in south central Florida, so Cecil hoped the man didn’t think he was stepping on his toes.
“Any expansion projects must be approved by the governing clan, Cecil.”
“Y—yes, yes, of course,” he said. “I was just trying to talk through some of the details. But I—I also wanted to stress that this expansion would be beneficial to us for another reason.”
“There is another building—an old factory, like this one—in North Carolina. Near the coast as well, so there would be little extra land-based transportation from the ships, but—and this is the important part—I believe the factory was once a chemical plant.”
“It’s not exactly what we need, not yet, but it does seem to be close. I found the real estate listing and saw some of the pictures of the interior, and I believe—”
“Cecil, I appreciate your work, but this is a matter best left to the governors.”
Cecil felt his heart sink. “Sir, please—I believe there is great opportunity to get a head start on localized production, and with only a small investment, we could—”
“That is enough.”
There was no more. No acknowledgment, no warning, nothing. The phone simply disconnected.
Cecil slammed the phone back down onto the table. Sure, he was young, but he was driven. Motivated. Consumed by the desire to improve, to grow, to advance—not just by a paycheck. He wanted to be seen, to become something in this organization. This opportunity was a no-brainer, even if the old plant needed to be completely gutted. If they could restart production in the United States, they could save millions on transportation, security, and personnel costs. They could bring the source much closer to the seller.
It was an easy win, but he still needed to convince them. That was fine, he liked hard work.
He took a breath, calming his nerves, and got to work.
Jake met McDonnell in his office first thing the next day.
“We’re wheels-up at 0700 tomorrow morning, flying out of Reagan.”
“Well, you. ‘We’ means we’re tracking, on the same page. Me, Bolivar, Smith. My team on the ground in Puerto Rico.”
Jake looked over McDonnell’s shoulder at the two others in the small room. Hector Bolivar, an MIT graduate, sat hunched over a messy workstation with a dual-screen monitor setup in front of him. Denise Smith, retired Air Force pilot, sat across from him, her own workstation perfectly tidy and organized.
When McDonnell mentioned their names, Smith’s head swiveled up and peered toward Jake, who was still standing in the entranceway of the room, then went immediately back down to her compu. . .
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