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Know the best advice I’ve gotten as a writer in the past decade or so?
“When writing a scene, always know where the light is coming from.”
That wise counsel came from my brilliant editor, Natalia Aponte, her thinking that if you describe the scene from the origin of the light, everything else would take care of itself, and she couldn’t be more right. Shadows splay across characters’ faces, further exaggerating the conflict and suspense. Light shines in a hero’s eyes, preventing them from seeing a gun in the villain’s hand. See, for me where let’s call it the Aponte Rule comes into play is making sure all scenes are described from the inside looking out, and not the outside looking in. That makes the characters seem more like spectators to the action instead of active participants, and it also serves to pull the reader further into the story, making they feel a part of the action.
I’m a thriller writer, meaning setting is especially crucial since so much of my work is based on the complex choreography of action scenes where I become like a film director in measuring out every step. In that regard, some settings become virtual characters in their own right. Let’s use my latest book PANDORA’S TEMPLE, featuring the return of my long-time series hero Blaine McCracken after a 15-year absence, as an example. The bad news is that Pandora’s temple, built to house the mythical Pandora’s box, was an equally mythical structure so nobody’s really sure what it looks like. The good news is that Pandora’s temple was a mythical structure so nobody’s really sure what it looks like.
Once you decide to call a book “Pandora’s Temple,” you have to reveal that particular setting at some point, no question about it since to do otherwise is to risk letting the reader down. So I had incredible liberty to describe the setting as I visualized it but also an incredible responsibility to do so credibly and believably. How could a structure that dates back to 1670 BC still be around today? How could it have been preserved? Why hadn’t it been found before? And what happened to the mythical box (that was actually a jar) stored inside it? Those questions pose the kind of challenges intrinsic to any writer dealing with historical reinvention or re-imagining. But it also means the reader is being treated to a setting the likes of which they’ve never encountered before.
Setting, you see, especially in the kind of thrillers I write, is a function of story. The villain of PANDORA’S TEMPLE is a recluse suffering from a rare and deadly ailment that forces him to live in what is essentially a massive hyperbaric chamber. I could have put it anywhere, but I decided upon something rare and colorful, that being a fortress built on the peak of the Pyrenees Mountains in Spain. The setting proved so rich and elaborate, I ended up using it as the setting for the climactic battle as well. It lent itself perfectly to the kind of staging I was looking to do. Not my original intention, but one that’s both fitting and organic to the book, so I went with it.
As I intimated before, in thrillers like PANDORA’S TEMPLE, settings are pretty much places where action and other stuff happens. The book opens with Blaine McCracken rescuing four college student hostages from a Mexican drug lord. I made the drug lord’s headquarters an old Spanish fort, defensible and fortified enough to make McCracken’s task all the more difficult. That way, when McCracken and company lay waste to all that’s around them, you can picture every move. Smell the grilling food and feel the dusty air against your face. The setting has the effect of injecting life into the scene. Contrast that with another sequence set in a New Orleans office building. Sounds simple enough, except for the fact that killer, out-of-control robots run rampant shooting up everything. In that case the setting was mundane, even dull. Just what’d you expect until everything goes horribly wrong in the last place you’d expect it to.
Getting back to the Pandora’s temple itself, I had to ask myself two questions: where could it be and where do I need it to be for the needs of the story? Well, underwater seemed a natural fit for a whole bunch of reasons, but it had to be under-underwater to explain why it’s escaped detection for so long while remaining generally whole. So I came up with the notion of creating the world’s largest underwater cavern, modeled after some very real and very big versions found in Mexico. That allowed me to add a giant squid to the mix because, setting doesn’t just serve the demands of story, it helps create story. But PANDORA’S TEMPLE also includes a bunch of scenes set on an offshore oilrig that forced me to do a ton of research to make sure I got everything as right as possible. After all, nobody knows exactly what a massive underground cavern, mountaintop fortress, or ancient temple necessarily looks like. An offshore oilrig is something different entirely. You could look up on Wikipedia to find all the mistakes I could’ve been guilty of, meaning I couldn’t be guilty of any. So for different settings, different rules apply.
Let me show you what I mean. Close your eyes and visualize yourself on a beach in summer. What’s the first thing you see in your head? Is it a person coming toward you, is it something glistening off the water, is it your own footprints in the sand behind you, or somebody else’s ahead of you? Any of these can quickly become an integral component of the story. And where’s the light, the sun? Is it in your eyes? Is it reflecting off the water? Does it make it hard to make out who that person coming toward you is?
In books there are no wrong settings and no right settings. There are places characters need to go to accomplish what they wouldn’t be able to otherwise. And if the writer always knows where the light is coming from, he or she will nail it every time.
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Bookstores and libraries love to categorize. Generally ‘crime’ gets its own spot, whereas a ‘thriller’ will get placed within the ‘general fiction’. So what separates ‘crime’ from a ‘thriller’ and when do the bookstores and libraries get it wrong?
That’s actually my absolute favorite question in the world. Could take a whole book to answer, but let me try to give you the gist of things here.
First off, some background: For much too long, thrillers were the bastard stepchildren of the publishing industry. Denied a firm placement of their own, they have struggled to carve out an identity and definition separate from mysteries and crime stories. Sure, there’s some overlap, quite a bit sometimes, but for our purposes today, let’s review the primary criteria that define what makes a thriller distinct.
1) STAKES: In his first book, Killing Floor, the great Lee Child introduces his iconic Jack Reacher character stopping over in a town where his brother, coincidentally, was just murdered. Now if Reacher was concerned only with finding his brother’s killer, we’d have a mystery. Along the way, though, he uncovers a massive counterfeiting plot that his brother had been investigating. So the book isn’t just about investigating a murder, it’s about seeking revenge on the perpetrators and bringing down their crime ring in the process. That’s a perfect example of how a book’s stakes figure into defining what that book is. Think back to James Bond’s cinematic debut in Dr. No and the great line where Bond, lighting a cigarette, responds flippantly after the evil genius villain has just sketched out his plan: “World domination . . . Same old plan.” Maybe so, but stakes as high as that are what help make a thriller a thriller.
2) A HERO IN JEOPARDY: Another key element in distinguishing a mystery or crime novel from a thriller is the plight of the hero. In a mystery, we follow the investigation through the eyes of the hero who is chasing the perpetrator while not always being threatened by that perpetrator or larger forces surrounding him. But a thriller places the life of the hero at risk, in danger. In order to survive, he or she must get to the bottom of what’s going on. The villains must not just be caught, they must be stopped. See, thrillers are at their heart quest stories in the grandest tradition and for that reason they are often intensely personal. Remember the great Hitchcock film The Man who Knew Too Much? Jimmy Stewart’s son is kidnapped to stop him telling the authorities what he knows, so the only way to get the boy back is to stop the bad guys himself. The ultimate quest with the lives of his entire family hanging in the balance as he gets to the root of an assassination conspiracy.
3) AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION: Jumping off a bit from the point above, thrillers are almost invariably about stopping something really bad from happening, not just investigating something that already has happened. It’s not a mystery, so much as a puzzle where the hero must fit all the pieces together in order to preempt a truly evil plot sure to harm lots of people. In that sense, the thriller form is interactive, asking the reader to play along with the hero in assembling all the clues. The villain, in turn, is determined to stop the hero’s efforts which creates the kind of nail-biting suspense that lies not only in wondering whether the hero will survive, but also whether he or she will succeed in preventing the Really Bad Thing from happening.
4) SETTING: Thrillers, for the most part, are defined by their rapid-fire pace. And that kind of pacing tends to move the heroes around a lot as they embark on their quest to stop the Really Bad Thing. The great tales of James Rollins and Steve Berry take us all over the world, any number of countries per book. While there are plenty of exceptions to this, Lee Child’s books foremost among them, the nature of the thriller has long been defined by characters shifting about settings both dark, mundane and exotic in a staccato-like fashion. Like a treasure hunt, where each clue leads to another that takes the hero somewhere else. This is in stark contrast to mysteries or crime tales which normally take place in a single city or, even, town.
5) HOLDING UP THE MIRROR: Mysteries and crime tales are seldom motivated or defined by societal concerns. Contrast that with the modern evolution of the thriller. The great paranoid conspiracy books by Robert Ludlum, like The Holcroft Covenant and The Matarese Circle, were spawned by the Watergate era where government became the enemy. Ronald Reagan restored trust to government but also reignited the Cold War, giving birth to the likes of Tom Clancy and a whole spat of thrillers more interested in machines than men. The end of the Cold War that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s pretty much killed the thriller form for a while. Sales plummeted, as thriller writers sought a new identity, a new enemy. We got both on 9/11. Suddenly a whole new generation of bad guys were born in Islamic terrorists, obviously capable of doing the Really Bad Thing thought to be only the product of fiction until that fateful, redefining day. The post 9/11 era, that birthed the likes of Vince Flynn, Brad Thor, Daniel Silva, and Alex Berenson, reinvigorated the thriller form and planted the seeds for the explosion of the genre’s popularity today. All of a sudden, we needed heroes again, and characters such as Mitch Rapp, Gabriel Allon and Scott Harvath more than fit the bill. If we couldn’t kill the boogeyman in real life, at least we could kill him in fiction, and the new wave of heroes was more than up to that task. But thriller writers are also ahead of the curve as well. Before he created Hannibal Lecter, Thomas Harris foresaw 9/11 in Black Sunday, his brilliant book about a terrorist attack on the Super Bowl. The Really Bad Thing in Ian Fleming’s 1961 Bond novel Thunderball was nuclear terrorism. Who could have known?
I could go on with this forever, but any writer needs to know when to stop, when enough is enough. There are no absolutes in this business and exceptions surely to every rule. Thrillers are as broad as our imaginations, elegantly encapsulating what the great John D. McDonald defines as a story: “Stuff happens to someone you care about.” To that, let me add “lots of” stuff and someone you care about “who’s in danger.” Now, that’s a thriller!
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“Caitlin Strong, Texas Ranger, rides again in Jon Land’s latest action-packed tale. This one, involving the Mexican drug trade, grabs you fast and holds you tight. Land knows how to write, how to plot, and how to tell a hell of a story. One of the best and most original thriller series written today. An excellent read.”
“Strong Vengeance ranks as the best and most exciting piece of the series so far, with great characters and a complex multi-dimensional plot. This makes it official: Caitlin Strong is the world’s number one tough gal. Other heroines may now compete for the silver or bronze.”
–The San Jose Mercury News
Mexico, 1919: The birth of the Mexican drug trade begins with opium being smuggled across the U.S. border, igniting an all-out battle with American law enforcement in general and the Texas Rangers in particular.
The Present: Fifth Generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong and her lover Cort Wesley Masters both survive terrifying gun battles. But this time, it turns out, the actual targets were not them, but Masters’ teenage sons.
That sets Caitlin and Cort Wesley off on a trail winding through the past and present with nothing less than the future of the United States hanging in the balance. Along the way they will confront terrible truths dating all the way back to the Mexican Revolution and the dogged battle Caitlin’s own grandfather and great-grandfather fought against the first generation of Mexican drug dealers.
At the heart of the storm soon to sweep away America as we know it, lies a mastermind whose abundant power is equaled only by her thirst for vengeance. Ana Callas Guajardo, the last surviving member of the family that founded the Mexican drug trade, has dedicated all of her vast resources to a plot aimed at the U.S.’s technological heart.
This time out, sabotage proves to be as deadly a weapon as bombs in a battle Caitlin must win in cyberspace as well. Her only chance to prevail is to short-circuit a complex plan based as much on microchips as bullets. Because there’s a strong rain coming and only Caitlin and Cort Wesley can stop the fall before it’s too late.
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Okay, confession time. The truth behind the return of my original series hero Blaine McCracken was not based on planning or inspiration. It was based instead on seizing a fresh and wonderful opportunity based on another opportunity lost.
See, around a year and a half ago Clive Cussler parted ways with one of his long-time co-authors. Turned out my agent happened to represent another of those co-authors and was intimately aware of the opening as well as the whole process, certainly enough to believe I’d be the perfect fit given that my McCracken books owe a lot of their inspiration to Cussler’s terrific Dirk Pitt series.
Now I’m somebody who attacks such an opportunity like a pit bull; I wasn’t about to just put my name forward with a resume of titles and hope for the best. No, I decided instead to go all-in by writing an extended sample. Here’s where the fun begins because, like my nine-book McCracken series, all of Cussler’s series are high-concept based. So I put brain to the grindstone, did some thinking followed by research, and discovered that no thriller writer had ever done a book using the mythical Pandora’s box as a jumping off point. Such historical speculation has long been the basis of this kind of book, Clive’s and mine included, so I had the germ of an idea I knew rocked:
What if Pandora’s box was real?
Well, it turns out the box was really a jar, but that’s beside the point. The real
point for our purposes anyway is that Clive decided to go in a different direction.
Disappointing for sure, but this business is all about getting up off the mat, brushing
yourself off, and getting back into the fight. To digress slightly, I had recently placed the
first five long-out-of-print McCracken titles with a wonderful company called Open
Road Integrated Media that had reissued them in digital format, giving new life to the
series and the character. So here I was with a hundred and fifty pages of a potentially
great adventure and nothing to do with them. But not for long because, thanks to Open
Road, I had something to do with them indeed: convert the story that was basically made
for Blaine McCracken into a McCracken story.
It was one of the smartest things I ever did and also one of the easiest, since
trying to tailor my writing for someone else hadn’t been much fun at all, while going
back to my old pal Blaine was a blast from the start. I added an extended rescue
sequence prologue to reintroduce McCracken to readers and rewrote the original pages
which exploded with the kind of life, energy and pacing that had come to typify the nine
previous McCracken books. I’m not saying it was easy, because the high-action thriller
form requires an elegant and seamless choreography to make the extended action
sequences seem fresh and original, as big and broad as what long-time McCracken fans
had come to expect.
Look, I stopped writing books featuring him fifteen years ago mostly because I
thought I’d taken his character as far as I could, along with the fact that the end of the
Cold War sort of sounded a death knell for these kind of thrillers. Fortunately I was
wrong on the first count and, thanks to the great writing of authors like James Rollins,
Steve Berry, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor among others, this kind of thriller found itself
very much back in vogue in the wake of 9/11.
In other words, the timing was perfect to bring Blaine McCracken back. Perfect
but also challenging. First off, the stakes had to be typically high. The McCracken
books were highly influenced by Ian Fleming’s James Bond. That meant the fate of
the world, or at least the country, had to be hanging in the balance. Good thing I had
my Pandora’s box idea, along with something else I’d been playing around with: dark
matter, the least understood and potentially most powerful (and, thus, deadly) force in
the universe. The disaster aboard the Deepwater Horizon stuck in my mind, planting a
seed of an even more epic disaster on an offshore oilrig as the basis for maybe the biggest
action-adventure tale I’d ever penned. Absolutely perfect to center around McCracken
and certain to please his most ardent fans who expect nothing less of him.
Uh-oh, though, I had another problem: as a deep cover operative who cut his
teeth in Vietnam’s Operation Phoenix, he’d have to be around 60 years old unless I
wanted to cheat a la Robert Parker who made the mistake of making his wondrous
Spenser a Korean War vet meaning he’d be around eighty-five now and still kicking butt.
But cheating the reader was no way to reintroduce McCracken and had I made him, say,
forty-five, he’d have been killing Vietcong at the age of ten. So I decided to age him
normally and introduce him in Pandora’s Temple about to celebrate his 60th birthday.
The phone has pretty much stopped ringing and time seems to have passed Blaine by,
when the call that brings him back to action comes.
And that’s one of the things that brought him back to life for me. I realized he
made the perfect metaphor for so many successful businessmen and women who find
their jobs outsourced or phased out when they reach the same age, thanks to the current
economy. I knew I had a theme that would create an emotional resonance in Pandora
that would help elevate it above the run-of-the-mill thriller and make it not just a worthy
addition to the series, but maybe the best one yet. Lucky number ten!
Once I realized that, I was able to swiftly recapture McCracken’s voice and his
sharp, thoughtful exchanges with his right-hand man, the seven-foot indestructible and
wise Johnny Wareagle. It happened organically and didn’t need to be forced at all,
although I did go back and add some scenes to help recapture the magic between them
that helps define who they are and the eternal quest they find themselves on.
Because at heart all great thrillers are quest stories and McCracken’s quest here is
to find Pandora’s box because that’s the only way to save the world. But this time out in
saving the world, Blaine is also saving himself from the scrapheap, and watching him
come to embrace that opportunity as the story goes on imbues the book with just the
verve it needed to do justice to a hero who’s been away from the page since 1998.
Based on the early response to Pandora’s Temple there’s no way he’ll be away
for that long again and I’m already dreaming up his next challenge, the next topic no
one’s ever written about before, that will serve Blaine well. While we await that time,
and while you enjoy this book, I have a question for you:
Who’s your favorite series hero and why?
Love to hear what you’ve got to say. After all, without you there’d be no Blaine
McCracken and there’d be no Jon Land.
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A Blaine McCracken Novel
By Jon Land
“No hero is immortal till he dies.”
The Mediterranean Sea, 2008
“It would help, sir, if I knew what we were looking for,” Captain John J. Hightower of the Aurora said to the stranger he’d picked up on the island of Crete.
The stranger remained poised by the research ship’s deck rail, gazing out into the turbulent seas beyond. His long gray hair, dangling well past his shoulders in tangles and ringlets, was damp with sea spray, left to the whims of the wind.
“Sir?” Hightower prodded again.
The stranger finally turned, chuckling. “You called me sir. That’s funny.”
“I was told you were a captain,” said Hightower
“In name only, my friend.”
“If I’m your friend,” Hightower said, “you should be able to tell me what’s so important that our current mission was scrapped to pick you up.”
Beyond them, the residue of a storm from the previous night kept the seas choppy with occasional frothy swells that rocked the Aurora even as she battled the stiff winds to keep her speed steady. Gray-black clouds swept across the sky, colored silver at the tips where the sun pushed itself forward enough to break through the thinner patches. Before long, Hightower could tell, those rays would win the battle to leave the day clear and bright with the seas growing calm. But that was hardly the case now.
“I like your name,” came the stranger’s airy response. Beneath the orange life jacket, he wore a Grateful Dead tie dye t-shirt and old leather vest that was fraying at the edges and missing all three of its buttons. So faded that the sun made it look gray in some patches and white in others. His eyes, a bit sleepy and almost drunken, had a playful glint about them. “I like anything with the word ‘high.’ You should rethink your policy about no smoking aboard the ship, if it’s for medicinal purposes only.”
“I will, if you explain what we’re looking for out here.”
“Out here” was the Mediterranean Sea where it looped around Greece’s ancient, rocky southern coastline. For four straight days now, the Aurora had been mapping the sea floor in detailed grids in search of something of unknown size, composition and origin; or, at least, known only by the man Hightower had mistakenly thought was a captain by rank. Hightower’s ship was a hydrographic survey vessel. At nearly thirty meters in length with a top speed of just under twenty-five knots, the Aurora had been commissioned just the previous year to fashion nautical charts to ensure safe navigation by military and civilian shipping, tasked with conducting seismic surveys of the seabed and underlying geology. A few times since her commission, the Aurora and her eight-person crew had been re-tasked for other forms of oceanographic research, but her high tech air cannons, capable of generating high-pressure shock waves to map the strata of the seabed, made her much more fit for more traditional assignments.
“How about I give you a hint?” the stranger said to Hightower. “It’s big.”
“How about I venture a guess?”
“Take your best shot, dude.”
“I know a military mission when I see one. I think you’re looking for a weapon.”
“Something stuck in a ship or submarine. Maybe even a sunken wreck from years, even centuries ago.”
“Cold,” the man Hightower knew only as “Captain” told him. “Well, except for the centuries ago part. That’s blazing hot.”
Hightower pursed his lips, frustration getting the better of him. “So are we looking for a weapon or not?”
“Another hint, Captain High: only the most powerful ever known to man,” the stranger said with a wink. “A game changer of epic proportions for whoever finds it. Gotta make sure the bad guys don’t manage that before we do. Hey, did you know marijuana’s been approved to treat motion sickness?”
Hightower could only shake his head. “Look, I might not know exactly you’re looking for, but whatever it is, it’s not here. You’ve got us retracing our own steps, running hydrographs in areas we’ve already covered. Nothing ‘big,’ as you describe it, is down there.”
“I beg to differ, el Capitan.”
“Our depth sounders have picked up nothing, the underwater cameras we launched have picked up nothing, the ROVS have picked up nothing.”
“It’s there,” the stranger said with strange assurance, holding his thumb and index finger together against his lips as if smoking an imaginary joint.
“We’re missing something, el Capitan. When I figure out what it is, I’ll let you know.”
Before Hightower could respond, the seas shook violently. On deck it felt as if something had tried to suck the ship underwater, only to spit it up again. Then a rumbling continued, thrashing the Aurora from side to side like a toy boat in a bathtub. Hightower finally recovered his breath just as the rumbling ceased, leaving an eerie calm over the sea suddenly devoid of waves and wind for the first time that morning.
“This can’t be good,” said the stranger, tightening the straps on his life vest.
* * *
The ship’s pilot, a young, thick-haired Greek named Papadopoulos, looked up from the nest of LED readouts and computer-operated controls on the panel before him, as Hightower entered the bridge.
“Captain,” he said wide-eyed, his voice high and almost screeching, “seismic centers in Ankara, Cairo and Athens are all reporting a sub-sea earthquake measuring just over six on the scale.”
“What’s the epi?”
“Forty miles northeast of Crete and thirty from our current position,” Papadopoulos said anxiously, a patch of hair dropping over his forehead.
“Jesus Christ,” muttered Hightower.
“Tsunami warning is high,” Papadopoulos continued, even as Hightower formed the thought himself.
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, we are in for the ride of our lives!” blared the stranger, pulling on the tabs that inflated his life vest with a soft popping sound. “If I sound excited it’s ‘cause I’m terrified, dudes!”
“Bring us about,” the captain ordered. “Hard back to the Port of Piraeus at all the speed you can muster.”
Suddenly the bank of screens depicting the seafloor in a quarter mile radius directly beneath them sprang to life. Readings flew across accompanying monitors, orientations and graphic depictions of whatever the Aurora’s hydrographic equipment and underwater cameras had located appearing in real time before Hightower’s already wide eyes.
“What the hell is—“
“Found it!” said the stranger before the ship’s captain could finish.
“Found what?” followed Hightower immediately. “This is impossible. We’ve already been over this area. There was nothing down there.”
“Earthquake must’ve changed that in a big way, el Capitan. I hope you’re recording all this.”
“There’s nothing to record. It’s a blip, an echo, a mistake.”
“Or exactly what I came out here to find. Big as life to prove all the doubters wrong.”
“Of the impossible.”
“That’s what you brought us out here for, a fool’s errand?”
The stranger watched as a central screen mounted beneath the others continued to form a shape massive in scale, an animated depiction extrapolated from all the data being processed in real time.
“Wait a minute, is that a . . . It looks like— My God, it’s some kind of structure!“
“Intact at that depth? Impossible! No, this is all wrong.”
“Hardly, el Capitan.”
“Check the readouts, sir. According to the depth gauge, your structure’s located five hundred feet beneath the seafloor. Where I come from, they call that impos—“
Hightower’s thought ended when the Aurora seemed to buckle, as if it had hit a roller coaster-like dip in the sea. The sensation was eerily akin to floating, the entire ship in the midst of an out-of-body experience, leaving Hightower feeling weightless and light-headed.
“Better fasten your seatbelts, dudes,” said the stranger, eyes fastened through the bridge windows at something that looked like a waterfall pluming on the ship’s aft side.
Hightower had been at sea often and long enough to know this to be a gentle illusion belying something much more vast and terrible: in this case, a giant wave of froth that gained height as it crystallized in shape. It was accompanied by a thrashing sound that shook the Aurora as it built in volume and pitch, felt by the bridge’s occupants at their very cores like needles digging into their spines.
“Hard about!” Hightower ordered Papadopoulos. “Steer us into it!”
It was, he knew, the ship’s only chance for survival, or would have been, had the next moments not shown the great wave turning the world dark as it reared up before them. The Aurora suddenly seemed to lift into the air, climbing halfway up the height of the monster wave from a calm sea that had begun to churn mercilessly in an instant. A vast black shadow enveloped the ship in the same moment intense pressure pinned the occupants of the bridge to their chairs or left them feeling as if their feet were glued to the floor. Then there was nothing but an airless abyss dragging darkness behind it.
“Far out, man!” Hightower heard the stranger blare in the last moment before the void claimed him.
THE DEEPWATER VENTURE
Juarez, Mexico; the present
The black Mercedes SUV slid up to the entrance of the walled compound, chickens skittering from its path in the shimmering heat as it squealed to a halt. Dust hung in the air like a light curtain, adding a dull sheen to everything in touched. A pair of armed guards approached the SUV from either side of the closed gate and tapped on the blacked-out window on both the driver and passenger sides.
“I’m here to see Señor Morales,” said the driver, his face cloaked in the darkness of the interior.
“You’re early,” said the guard, hands closed over doorframe so his fingers were curled inside the cab. A thin layer of dust lifted by the breeze coated both his uniform and face.
“By a full day.”
The driver feigned surprise. “Really? Guess I messed up with my Day Planner.”
“Then we will see you tomorrow,” the guard said, backing away from the SUV as if expecting the driver to take his leave.
“Sorry, I’m not available then. But if Señor Morales would prefer I take my business elsewhere, I’m sure his competition will be most interested in that business when I visit them tomorrow instead.”
The lead guard moved up against the door again, two others with almost identical black hair and mustaches inching closer as well. “You will honor the terms of your deal.”
“Just what I came here to do, amigo. Now go check with your boss and let’s get on with it,” said the driver.
He was wearing a cream-colored suit and t-shirt that was only slightly darker. The t-shirt fit him snugly, revealing a taut torso and chest expansive enough to strain the fabric. His face was ruddy, his complexion that of a man who’d spent many hours outside, though not necessarily in the sun. His thin beard was so tightly trimmed to his skin that it could have been confused for a trick of the SUV interior’s dark shading. Other than a scar that ran through his right eyebrow and thick black hair sprinkled with a powdering of gray, his only real distinguishing feature was a pair of dark, deep-set eyes that looked like twin black holes spiraling through either side of his face.
“If Señor Morales and I have a deal, then the day shouldn’t matter,” he told the guard at his window.
“I’ll tell him you’ll be returning tomorrow.”
“Then I’ll be returning without this,” the driver said, turning toward the passenger seat where a smaller man who looked ten years his senior held up a briefcase that was handcuffed to his wrist.
The older man’s face was pocked with tiny scars seeming to all point toward a bent and bulbous nose that had been broken on more than one occasion. His eyes didn’t seem to blink because when they did the motion was so rapid that it might as well have not of happened at all.
“Señor Morales does not like to be threatened,” the guard said, taking a step back from the vehicle. “It ruins his day.”
“Then it’s a good thing I’m not threatening anyone. Now open the gate,” the man in the driver’s seat said, gazing up at the unmanned watch towers left over from Spanish colonial times when the compound had been an active fort and these walls had proved to be the staging ground for all manner of attacks launched against native Mexicans.
The guard backed further way from the vehicle, raising a walkie-talkie to his lips. The window slid back up, quickly vanquishing the heat in favor of the soft cool of the air conditioning.
“This ain’t good, boss,” said Sal Belamo from the passenger seat.
“Hope you didn’t expect otherwise,” Blaine McCracken said to him, smiling ever so slightly as he opened the sunroof, the cabin flooded immediately by light. “Otherwise, somebody else would’ve taken the job.”
* * *
With a half dozen assault rifles trained upon him, McCracken spent the next few moments carefully studying the exterior of the compound belonging to Arturo Nieves Morales, head of the Juárez drug cartel, the largest in a country dominated by them. He could see more guards armed with assault rifles posted strategically atop the walls amid the dust swirl.
“Those college kids Morales is holding should never have been down here in the first place, Sal.”
“Spring Break, boss. They thought they’d be safe in some resort in Cabo.”
McCracken laid his hands on the steering wheel and leaned back. “They got taken outside a nightclub, lured into a van by some girls we now know were Morales’ plants. Not exactly what you’d expect from honor students.”
“Booze will do that to you.”
“I wouldn’t know, Sal. These are honor students who seem to lead the world in community service efforts. Their fraternity built a house for those Habitat for Humanity folks—a whole damn house, for God’s sake.”
“Sounds like you’re taking this personal, boss.”
“They’re good kids who didn’t deserve getting snatched in this sinkhole of a country.”
“Parents couldn’t raise the ransom?”
“What’s the difference? You pay Morales, he just asks for more. And if you don’t keep paying, you start getting your kid back one piece at a time.”
“Uh-oh,” from Belamo.
“I’ve heard that tone before.”
“Doesn’t matter, boss. You’re picking up just where you left off, and only one way this goes, you ask me.”
“With a lot of bodies left behind.”
“So long as none of them belong to the hostages, Sal.”
Washington, one week earlier
“I thought you were out,” Henry Folsom said to Blaine McCracken seven days before.
Folsom had the look of a man born in a button-down shirt. Hair neatly slicked back, horn-rimmed glasses and youthful features that would make him appear forty forever. There was something in his eyes, though, that unsettled McCracken a bit, a constant shifting of his gaze as if there was something he didn’t want McCracken to see lurking there.
“Most people think I’m dead,” McCracken said, folding his arms tightly across his chest.
Folsom shifted, as if to widen the space between them at the table. “All the same, I was glad when your name came up in conversation.”
“Really? What kind of conversation was that?”
“Independent contractors capable of pulling off the impossible.”
“I haven’t pulled off anything, impossible or otherwise, for a couple years now.”
“Are you saying you’re not interested?”
“I’m here, aren’t I? But my guess is I wouldn’t be, if you hadn’t pitched this job elsewhere.”
“To more traditional authorities, you mean.”
“Younger, anyway,” said McCracken.
Folsom seemed to smirk. “The hostages are fraternity brothers from Brown University. One of their parents is a top immigration lawyer. That’s why this ended up on my desk.”
“You know him?”
“Nope, but I know you,” Folsom said, folding his arms tightly and flashing another smirk. “I did my Masters thesis on the true birth of covert operations, contrasting the work of the World War II-bred work of the OSS with the Vietnam era Operation Phoenix where CIA-directed assassins plucked off the North Vietnamese cadre one at a time.” Folsom leaned forward, canting his shoulders forward as if he were about to bow. “I’ve been reading about you for twenty years now.”
“There’s nothing written about me.”
Folsom came up just short of a wink. “I know.”
McCracken had met him in the F Street Bistro in the State Plaza Hotel, a pleasant enough venue with cheery light and a slate of windows overlooking the street he instinctively avoided. McCracken had arrived first, as was his custom, and staked out a table in as close to a darkened corner as the place had to offer. He’d used this location in the past because of its status as one of Washington’s best-kept secrets. Once he sat down, though, the room began to fill up around him, every table occupied within minutes and an army of waiters scurrying between them. McCracken found all the bustle distinctly unsettling and nursed a ginger ale that was almost all water and ice by the time Folsom arrived.
“You don’t drink,” Folsom noted.
“Never. So who in the Special-Ops community you call first?”
“Maybe I’ve just always wanted to see your work first-hand.”
“That’s funny, Hank. A sense of humor makes you a rare commodity these days, what with so many ex-operators running around with their hands out. Guys who could be my kids. I turn sixty in a couple weeks, Hank. That puts me a step beyond even father figure.”
“Normal channels had to be bypassed here,” Folsom told him. “Can’t send the Rangers or SEALS into Mexico with a new trade agreement about to be inked.”
“And since you always wanted to work with me . . .”
“I needed someone who could get the job done, McCracken. That immigration lawyer I just mentioned? He does work for us from time to time.”
“Who’s ‘us’, Hank?”
“The State Department, what else?”
McCracken held Folsom’s gaze until the younger man broke it. “If you say so, Hank.”
“Name your price. It will be considered non-negotiable.”
McCracken chuckled at the promise. “First time for everything, I guess.”
“So how much is it going to take to bring you out of retirement?”
“I wasn’t aware I’d retired.”
“How much, McCracken?”
McCracken sized the man up, from his perfectly tailored suit to professionally styled hair without a strand out of place. “You been to the Vietnam Memorial lately, Hank?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“There are some names missing, the names of many of the men I served with in Vietnam who never came back. That’s my fee. I pull this off, I want their names up there on the Wall where they belong. I want you to take care of it.”
Folsom’s eyes moved to McCracken’s ring, simple black letters on gold. “D-S. Stands for Dead Simple, right?”
McCracken didn’t respond.
“What’s it mean?”
“I think you know.”
“Because killing came so easy. You still worthy of the nickname ‘McCrackenballs’?”
“You want my services or my autograph, Hank?”
Folsom leaned forward. “How many times did they ask you to go after Bin Laden?”
“Not a one.”
“That’s not what I heard.”
“You heard wrong.”
Folsom came up just short of a smile. “I heard there was a reason why the SEALS encountered so little resistance. I heard the bodies of eight pretty bad hombres were hauled out after the fact, all dead before the SEALS dropped in. Word is it was you and that big Indian friend of yours.”
“His name is Johnny Wareagle.”
Folsom said nothing.
“SEALS got Bin Laden, Hank. It’s nice to fantasize about things being bigger than they really were but that raid was big enough all on its own. Weird thing is that when I was in, I never got or wanted credit for anything. Now that I’m out, I get more than I deserve and still don’t want any.”
“You’re not out,” Folsom told him.
“Figure of speech. What they say when nobody calls you in anymore.”
Across the table, Folsom suddenly looked older and more confident. “I called. And I’ll see what I can do about getting those names added to the Wall.”
“Is that what you call nonnegotiable?”
“I’ll take care of it.”
“Better. Now give me your word.”
“Because a man’s word means something, even in your world where lying rules the day.”
“Used to be your world too.”
McCracken’s black eyes hardened even more. “It was never mine, Hank.” He leaned forward, almost face-to-face with Folsom before the man from the State Department could register he’d moved at all. “Now tell me more about the job.”
“Mexico,” Folsom nodded. He leaned back in his chair to again lengthen the distance between them. “Gun loving Juárez, specifically. Place is like the Old West. You’ll be going up against a hundred guns in a walled fortress.”
McCracken rose, jarring the table just enough to send the rest of his watery ginger ale sloshing around amid the melting ice cubes. “Send me the specs and the satellite recon.”
“That’s it?” Folsom asked.
“Not quite. I don’t like working for somebody I can’t trust.” Folsom opened his mouth to respond, but McCracken rolled right over his words. “You’re not from State. State doesn’t work with people like me. It’s not in their job description. Too busy covering their own asses. Politics, Hank, something you clearly don’t give a shit about.”
“All right, you got me. I’m Homeland Security,” Folsom told him.
“Ah, the new catch-all . . .”
“You’re right about the tools at State, McCracken. But we, on the other hand, get shit done. Being Homeland gives us a license to do pretty much anything we want.”
“Including going outside the system to call in a dinosaur like me?”
Folsom tried to hold McCracken’s stare. “Just answer me one question. Your phone doesn’t ring until I call, it leaves me wondering.”
“That’s not a question.”
Folsom didn’t hesitate. “The question is, do you still have it or not . . . McCrackenballs?”
McCracken smiled tightly. “Let me put it this way, Hank: When this is over, you may want to revise that thesis of yours.”
“What’s eating you, boss?” Sal Belamo asked, as McCracken steered the SUV toward the compound’s gates after the guards finally waved him through.
“Folsom asked me if I still had it.”
“Any doubt in your mind about that?”
“Two years is a long time, Sal.”
“You’re not saying you’re scared.”
“Nope, but I was: scared that the call wouldn’t come again after the phone stopped ringing two years ago.”
Belamo gazed around him. “Well, we can safely say that concern’s been put to rest.”
The inside of the compound jibed perfectly with the satellite reconnaissance photos Folsom had provided. It reminded McCracken of a typical Spanish mission, not unlike the famed Alamo in San Antonio, with an inner courtyard and a nest of buildings located beyond a walled façade that in olden times would have provided an extra layer of defense from attack. A lavish fountain left over an earlier era was centered in the courtyard, beautifully restored but no longer functional. The sun burned high in a cloudless sky, flooding the compound with blistering hot light that reflected off the cream-colored array of buildings. The air smelled of scorched dirt mixed with stale perspiration that hung in the air like haze, the combination acrid enough to make McCracken want to hold his breath.
Trays of freshly grilled chicken, fish and beef smelling of chilli powder, pepper and oregano sharp enough to reach the SUV’s now open windows, meanwhile, had been laid out on tables covered by open-sided tent. McCracken could see plates of sliced tomatoes and bowls of freshly made guacamole placed in another section not far from ice chests packed with bottled water. Many of Morales’ uniformed guards had lined up to fill their plates. Folsom had told McCracken that many of the men on Morales’ payroll were former Zetas, veterans of the Mexican Special Forces originally charged with bringing down the very forces they were now serving.
“Two years, Sal,” McCracken repeated, angling the Mercedes toward a parking slot squeezed amidst military vehicles that included ancient American-issue Jeeps.
“Took a break from the ring once that long,” Belamo related. “Knocked a guy out in the first round when I came back.”
“You weren’t sixty at the time.”
“You’re still fifty-nine, boss.”
McCracken couldn’t judge the prowess of Morales’ troops one way or another by what he saw, but their eyes showed no worry or suspicion or wariness of any kind. If they held any expectation of a pending attack, there was no evidence of it. Instead men clad in sweat-soaked uniforms who’d already gotten their lunches lounged leisurely, their weapons resting nearby but in some cases not even within reach. The bulk of the personnel clung to the cooler shade cast by the walled façade while others, likely those lower on the totem pole, stuck to the thinner patches provided by an old yellow school bus with rust spreading upward from its decaying rocker panels. Morales himself, arguably the world’s most infamous drug dealer, held court upon a covered veranda, enclosed by four gunmen and seated in what looked like a rocking chair next to a younger dark-haired beauty who could have been an actress.
McCracken and Sal Belamo climbed out of the SUV into the scorching heat, the sensation worsened by the sudden loss of air conditioning in favor of stagnant air that was almost too heavy to breathe. The sky above was an endless blue ribbon, fostering an illusion that the sun itself was vibrating madly.
McCracken and Belamo submitted to the thorough, wholly anticipated pat-down which turned up nothing. Then six more guards escorted them to the veranda and beckoned for them to continue up the three stairs for an audience with the man whom many said was the most powerful in Mexico.
“So I understand you want to get our business done early, Mr. Franks,” Morales said, rising in the semblance of a greeting.
“I happened to be in the area,” McCracken told him, “with time on my hands.”
“We had an arrangement.”
“We still do. Only the schedule has changed. But if you wish to rethink that arrangement . . .”
Morales sat back down next to the much younger woman who flinched when he settled in alongside her, filling out the entire width of the chair. He was overweight, hardly resembling the most common shots circulated of him from younger days by the U.S. intelligence community. Withdrawing to a life of isolation wrought by his many enemies had clearly left Morales with a taste for too much food and wine to accompany his vast power in the region. Judging by the thick blotches of perspiration dotting the cartel leader’s shirt, McCracken doubted any of the buildings here were even equipped with air conditioning.
Morales’ hair was thinning in contrast to the thick mustache drooping over his upper lip. He was dressed casually in linen slacks and a near matching shirt unbuttoned all the way down to the start of the belly that protruded over his belt. A light sheen of perspiration coated his face and he breathed noisily through his mouth.
He took the dark-haired woman’s right hand in his while he stroked her hair with the left. “This is my wife Elena. But she has borne me no children. Such a disappointment.”
With that, he bent one of the woman’s fingers back until McCracken heard a snap. He flinched as the woman gasped and bit down the pain, slumping in her chair.
“Everyone is replaceable, eh, Señor Franks?” Morales sneered, seeming to relish the agony he’d caused his wife.
McCracken bit back his anger, keeping his eyes away from the woman who was now choking back sobs. “Men like us aren’t, Señor Morales. And I thought coming early was in both our best interests.”
“And why is that?” Morales asked him.
“It stopped you from the bother of staging a welcome for me.”
“I would have enjoyed making such a gesture, amigo.”
“You and I, Señor Morales, we’re cautious men pursuing mutual interests. You need my network to provide you with new routes to bring your product into the United States and I need exclusive distribution of that product in order to eliminate my competition in select markets. I imagine we can agree on that much.”
“You wouldn’t be here if we didn’t already,” Morales said, his eyes straying to the briefcase still chained to Belamo’s wrist. “You see that school bus over there?”
“You mean the one your soldiers are sleeping against?”
Morales ignored his remark. “I started my career as a runner using that bus to bring drugs into your country. I would recruit local children and pay them a dollar to play students heading to America on field trips. I keep the bus here as a reminder of my humble roots. And even men like us must never lose sight of how hard we worked to get where we are, si?”
“For sure,” McCracken acknowledged, meaning it this time.
Morales’ eyes returned to the briefcase. A woman clad in a tight satin dress laid a heaping plate she had made from the lunch tables down before him. Another woman who might have been her twin refilled his glass of sangria, making sure just the right amount of floating fruit spilled in. Their moves looked robotic, rehearsed. And the fact that they remained cool amid the scalding heat made them appear like department store mannequins devoid of anything but beauty.
“You have brought your deposit?” Morales asked.
“In exchange for the first shipment to be delivered within the week. That was the deal. A fair exchange.”
“Then let me see it,” Morales said, again angling his gaze for the briefcase cuffed to Sal Belamo’s wrist. “Of course, I could always have one of my men cut your man’s hand off.”
“But that would leave him with only one,” McCracken noted, unruffled. “And then I’d have to take one of yours in return. Also a fair exchange.”
Morales grinned broadly, his threat left hanging. “You are good at math, señor.”
“Just as you are with women.”
The grin vanished.
“Sal,” McCracken signaled.
At that, Belamo pried a small key from his shoe and unlocked the handcuffs from both his wrist and the briefcase. Then he handed the case to Morales who laid it in his lap and eagerly flipped the catches, slowly raising the lid. His breathing quieted, his eyes widened.
“Is this some kind of joke?” Morales asked, clearly dismayed as he spun the open briefcase around to reveal nothing inside but two pistols, a sleek semiautomatic and a long-barreled Magnum revolver.
“Those are very valuable guns, señor,” McCracken said, as Morales’ personal Zeta guards steadied their weapons upon him. “Men have perished under their fire, many with prices on their heads. You’re welcome to the rewards in exchange for the hostages.”
“Who are you?” Morales asked, tossing the briefcase to the veranda floor as he rose again.
“I’m the man doing you a big favor, Morales. Someday you’ll thank me for showing you kidnapping doesn’t pay, at least not when you’re bringing in as much as you are from your drug business. Here,” he said, handling Morales a ruffled piece of paper.
Morales straightened, trying to make sense of the number and letter combinations. “What is this?”
“The latitude and longitude marks denoting the locations of your largest storage facilities. If I don’t leave with the hostages, all four go boom.”
Morales smiled, chuckled, then outright laughed. “You are threatening me? You are really threatening me? Here in my home, in front of my men?” His voice gained volume with each syllable. He seemed to be enjoying himself; the challenge, the threat.
“I’m going to let you keep your drugs, against my better judgment, but the four Americans, the college students, leave with me.”
At first it seemed Morales didn’t know how to respond. But then he threw his head back and laughed heartily again, both the women and his guards joining in for good measure. Only his wife Elena stayed quiet, too busy swiping the tears of pain from her face.
“Just like that?” Morales said, the veranda’s other occupants stopping their laughter as soon as he stopped his.
“Yup, just like that.”
“And what do I get in return for accepting your gracious offer?”
“You get to stay in business.” McCracken tapped his watch for Morales to see. “But the clock’s ticking.”
“You have one minute.”
Morales started to laugh again but stopped. The two women nuzzled against him on either side in spite of his wife’s presence, his private guards slapping each other on the back.
“I have one minute!” he roared, laughing so hard now his face turned scarlet and he wheezed trying to find his breath.
“Forty-five seconds now.”
Morales jabbed a finger at the air McCracken’s way. “I like you, amigo. You’re a real funny guy.” He stopped laughing and finally caught his breath. “After you’re dead, I think I’ll have you stuffed and mounted on the wall so I always have something to make me smile.”
“You won’t be smiling in thirty seconds time, Morales, unless you agree to give me the Americans. Tick, tick, tick.”
Morales reached down toward the briefcase and scooped up the two pistols. “Are these loaded?”
“So I could kill you with them now.”
“Let me see,” Morales said dramatically, looking from one pistol to the other, “which one should I use. . . .” A broad smile crossed his lips. “Eeney, meeney, miney . . .”
And in that moment a portion of the compound’s façade around the gated entrance exploded in a fountain of rubble and dust. The remainder of the first wave of missiles that followed in the next instant obliterated the unmanned watch towers and took out the compound’s armory in a sizzling display of light and ear-ringing blasts that grew like a fireworks display.
“Mo,” said McCracken.
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“Jon Land’s dazzling new novel, Pandora’s Temple, carries the reader on a wild tsunami of a tale through a world of assassins, doomsday cults, and killer robots, all focused on an ancient and terrifying mystery hidden at the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea. The story is fascinating and utterly original, with vivid characters and a compelling, high-technology backdrop. I loved this book!”
–Douglas Preston, co-author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Pendergast novels
BLAINE McCRACKEN IS BACK . . .
Because everyone needs a hero
What if Pandora’s Box was real?
Blaine McCracken finds himself facing that question, and the greatest threat that has ever confronted mankind, in his long awaited return to the page.
McCracken has never been shy about answering the call, and this time it comes in the aftermath of deepwater oilrig disaster that claims the life of a one-time member of his commando unit. The remnants of the rig and its missing crew lead him to the inescapable conclusion that one of the most mysterious and deadly forces in the Universe is to blame—dark matter, both a limitless source of potential energy and a weapon with unimaginable destructive capabilities.
Joining forces again with his trusty sidekick Johnny Wareagle, McCracken races to stop both an all-powerful energy magnate and the leader of a Japanese doomsday cult from finding the dark matter they seek for entirely different, yet equally dangerous, reasons. Ultimately, that race will take him not only across the world, but also across time and history to the birth of an ancient legend that may not have been a legend at all. The truth lies 4,000 years in the past and the construction of the greatest structure known to man at the time:
Pandora’s Temple, built to safeguard the most powerful weapon man would ever know.
Now, with that very weapon having resurfaced, McCracken’s only hope to save the world is to find the temple, the very existence of which is shrouded in mystery and long lost to myth. Along the way, he and Johnny Wareagle find themselves up against Mexican drug gangs, killer robots, an army of professional assassins, and a legendary sea monster before reaching a mountaintop fortress where the final battle to preserve mankind will be fought.
Blog Posts, Normal by cosproductions | 1 Comment
Gulf waters off the coast of Texas, 1820
“Give me our bearings, Mr. Jeffreys,” Alfred Neal, captain of the Mother Mary, asked his first officer.
Jeffreys met Neal’s gaze with his hooded eyes, then once more consulted his map in the light shed by a lantern hanging from a pole. “The fog’s waylaid my direction, but we’re steering on course, Captain.”
The massive four-masted schooner creaked through the murky night, clumsily negotiating the Texas coast’s swampy channels. Low-hanging cypress branches scraped at the multi-decked galleon’s sails, as gators darted back up on sodden land to avoid her lumbering menace. The fetid heat and stagnant air left the sweat to soak through the woolen jackets and cotton breeches of the men standing on the bridge, further attracting hungry mosquitoes fat with blood. The buzzing, blood-crazed swarms hung over the deck, thickening as the night wore on, perhaps having summoned more of their hungry brethren from the nearby shores.
“We’d best hope so,” Captain Neal grunted and rotated his spyglass again. But the night yielded nothing through the dense fog other than stagnant water the color of tea from fallen leaves both clinging to the surface and lining the bottom. Besides the gators, packs of swimming nutria, and an occasional Night Heron, the only signs of life the Mother Mary had encountered since nearing the Texas shores was an Indian paddling an old pirogue boat carved out a tree trunk. And that was precisely the point, given the nature of the cargo now contained in the hold below. That much Neal had fully expected; it was the passenger who accompanied the cargo that had taken the ship’s captain by surprise.
“This is the right channel, sir,” Jeffreys resumed, returning his map to belt pouch. “I’m sure of it.”
“You’d better be,” came the voice of that passenger from the other side of the bridge. Both Neal and Jeffreys watched the squat bulbous form of the man who said his name was Quentin Cusp step into the thin light cast by the lantern. “It’ll mark the end of your days on the seas, if you’re wrong. Both of you.”
“I know I’m right by the smell, sir,” First Officer Jeffreys told him.
“And a foul odor it is. Musty and sour.”
Captain Neal almost told the man to smell himself. “I hate these damn waters,” he groused, “and I hate whatever it is you’re carrying there in your belt.”
Cusp jerked both hands down to his waist, as if to protect whatever his belt was concealing.
“I’ve seen you checking the hidden pouch or whatever you’ve got sewn in there ever since we picked you up. A man of your standing wearing the same trousers these many weeks leaves anyone of sane mind wondering as well.”
“Wondering isn’t what I paid you so handsomely for, Captain,” Cusp snapped, clearly offended.
Neal squared his shoulders and held his gaze on Cusp’s belt. “Maybe you’re a spy for the British. Maybe whatever secrets you’re carrying brands me a traitor by association. I don’t intend to hang for your crimes against the country, Mr. Cusp.”
“I’m no spy, sir, and you were hired for your reputation for discretion as much as anything, Captain, apparently not well earned.”
“You mean like those gunmen who cordoned off the dock while you waited for our skiff?”
Cusp looked surprised.
“My men are trained to be observant,” Neal continued, “especially in dangerous waters.”
Cusp started to turn away. “Then I hope they serve you just as well as sailors, Captain, so we might make port before the light gives us up. Because if we don’t—“
Cusp’s words halted when the ship shook violently. A scraping sound rose through the night, and the sailors of the bridge were jostled about as the Mother Mary’s hull shuddered and quaked before grinding to a halt that pushed tremors through the black water.
“You’ve run us aground, Mr. Jeffreys!” Neal said, swinging around. “Helmsman, bring us hard to port to catch the currents!”
“Aye-aye, Captain!” yelled back the helmsman, already fighting with the wheel.
“They’ll be hell to pay for this, Captain,” an enraged Cusp hissed, cutting off Neal’s path to the wheel.
Neal pushed him aside, studying the utter blackness of the night. “Hell might be just where we are,”
He continued moving to take the wheel himself, when a steel baling hook soared over the aft portion of the deck and jammed itself into the gunwale.
“My Lord,” Cusp uttered, “what in the name of the Almighty is—“
“Sound the general alarm!” Neal ordered the mate nearest the bridge bell.
Even as the mate’s hand, wrapped in tawny leather, began ringing, Neal glimpsed more baling hooks being hurled through the fog over theMother Mary’s sides fore and aft, snaring on the gunwales. The ship’s mate continued to work the bell, rousing the sleeping sailors from their berths as a succession of dark shapes climbed on board and dispersed in eerily synchronized fashion.
“Pirates,” Neal realized, wheeling about in search of some form of weapon to find only a hand-held axe used to cut lines in a storm-wrought emergency. He twisted past the lumbering Cusp and dropped down to the main deck just as the fog parted to reveal a tall man with a thick, well-groomed mustache that hung over his upper lip standing ten feet before him.
“Best of the evening to you, Captain.”
“I’ll be damned,” Neal managed.
“I see you recognize me,” the pirate grinned.
“Jean Lafitte . . .”
Lafitte stepped further into the thin light shed by the bridge lantern. His black eyes twinkled. “At your service, Captain.”
He was tall and sinewy thin with keen black eyes peering out from beneath a battered black felt hat angled low over his forehead. He wore a tight red jacket that clung to his bony shoulders and stopped just short of the baggy trousers wedged into his well-worn black leather boots.
His neck seemed too long for the rest of his body, almost bird-like, Neal thought, also noticing bands of stringy muscle lining that neck and extending all the way to a frayed bandana neatly tied just over the collar of his low-hanging shirt.
“You dare mock me, Captain?”
Neal showed his axe. “Have at it then.”
Ignoring the challenge, the pirate brushed back his coat to reveal both musket and sword at the ready.
Neal continued to brandish his blade. “You’ll not have my ship!”
Lafitte glanced back through the fog at his well-armed pirates taking the first sailors to emerge from below prisoner. “It would seem it’s already mine, so drop your weapon, Captain.”
But Neal held fast, feeling the now moist axe handle quivering in his grasp.
“Your weapon, Captain.”
“Then I’ll save you for last, so you can watch all of your men die.”
Neal felt his breath seize up, the pressure building in his chest. He’d let his ship be taken when at its most vulnerable, the pirates’ measured assault too much to overcome. He released the axe and listened to it clamor to the deck.
“There’ll be hell to pay this time, Lafitte.”
“Why, Captain, didn’t anyone tell you the import of slaves into any United States port is illegal? But rest easy, sir, my partner and I will be glad to take them off your hands,” Lafitte said, turning at the sound of another man’s approach.
In that moment, Neal noticed a shorter man draw even with Lafitte, a man who held a musket in hand and knife sheathed to his belt instead of a sword.
“I know you,” Neal said, squinting to better see through the night.
“I should think so,” the man followed. “Our paths crossed when we beat down the bastards from England a few years back.”
Neal’s arms stiffened by his sides. “Jim Bowie?”
Bowie bowed slightly. “At your service, Captain. And you should be aware that Mr. Lafitte fought on our side as well.”
“Until the governor of Louisiana put a five hundred dollar bounty on my head.”
“Good thing you had an answer for him,” Bowie said to the pirate.
“Indeed,” Lafitte acknowledged, addressing Captain Neal. “I offered fifteen hundred for the governor’s.”
Neal knew that story, just as he knew Lafitte had been born to a poor family in France in 1780. A sharp-witted, quick study of a man who spoke English and Spanish as well by the early 1800s when he accompanied his brother Pierre to the United States. There he set up shop in New Orleans to warehouse and disperse goods smuggled by his brother before turning to the pirate’s life himself. By 1810 he was presiding over his initial band of outlaws on Grande Terre Island in Barataria Bay in the Gulf of Mexico. In 1814 the British offered the pirate a pardon, a captaincy in their navy, and $30,000 if he would aid them in an attack on New Orleans. Lafitte refused and proceeded to inform the United States of the British plans, offering the services of the Barataria smugglers to the U.S instead. He fought with General Andrew Jackson in the Battle of New Orleans and received a pardon by President James Madison for his efforts. When the end of war came, he moved his headquarters to Galveston Island off the Texas coast where he established a colony called Campeche and went back to the pirate’s life, partnering with Jim Bowie in running slaves through the newly established Texas territory.
“You might even call my friend Jean here a hero,” Bowie quipped to Captain Neal, drawing broad laughter from Lafitte’s assembled pirates now holding the whole of the Mother Mary’s crew hostage on their knees, most still stripped down to their skivvies. “But we’ve little time to spare with such pleasantries,” he cautioned. “We need to get the slaves loaded onto the Goelette la Dilidente before first light.”
“Then bring me the first mate,” Lafitte ordered.
Mr. Jeffreys, now with arms tied behind his back, rose to his feet and was dragged to Lafitte by one of his pirates.
“You’ll do no harm to any of my crew, sir!” said Captain Neal, shoulders stiffening and chest protruding outward.
“Turn around,” Lafitte ordered Jeffreys, ignoring him.
As the first mate of the Mother Mary swung around, Jim Bowie whipped out the knife that would one day bear his name. Before anyone could so much as breathe, the blade came down in a blur and sliced neatly through Jeffrey’s bonds.
“Good work, cousin,” Bowie said, as Jeffreys swung around to face him.
“Running the ship aground was nothing, cousin,” Jeffreys said back, stretching his arms. “I still know these waters like the back of my hand.”
“Traitor!” Neal shouted, launching himself into a feeble lunge Jean Lafitte effortlessly intercepted.
The pirate kicked Neal’s legs out from under him, dropping the captain hard to the deck where he placed a booted foot atop his chest. “Don’t tempt my graces further or next you’ll feel the tip of my sword.” Then Lafitte spotted Quentin Cusp hanging back in the darkness of the bridge, his bulbous form squeezed behind a thin abutment that left his stomach protruding. “And what have we here?”
“A passenger, nothing more,” Neal gasped from the deck. “Paid for passage to our next port of call.”
“Was access to the bridge part of his ticket?”
Lafitte gestured to a pair of his pirates who rousted Cusp and dragged him down from the bridge. “State your business, sir.”
“I don’t answer to you or any pirate,” Cusp insisted dryly.
“Would you rather answer to the gators snoozing on the shoreline?”
Cusp swallowed hard, his bravado vanishing as quickly as that.
“I didn’t think so.” Lafitte noticed the thick belt enclosing Cusp’s considerable waist. “And what have we here? Allow me to relieve you of your burden, sir.”
And with that Lafitte stripped the belt free to reveal a thick, narrow pouch sewn into the back of its leather lining. “Now, let’s see what the captain’s good passenger has been hiding, shall we, Jim?”
Cusp feebly tried to pull free of his captors. “You’ll live to regret this, I swear it! Know that I have powerful friends, pirate!”
“Do you now? Then I’m sure I’ve crossed paths with them before. And each time they emerged on the wrong side of the battle, as they will again,” he said confidently, eyes twinkling and flashing a smile in the thin spray of lantern light.
Lafitte tore the pouch open at the seam and pulled the material apart to better inspect its contents.
“Mother of tears . . .”
Jin Bowie’s mouth dropped at the sight, his eyes bulging. He blinked several times, as if to reassure himself the sight was real.
“Are those what I think—“
“They are indeed,” Lafitte answered before Bowie could finish, before looking back toward Cusp. “It would seem we’re in the company of a man who stows his riches with his brains—just over his ass.”
“I’m only a messenger,” Cusp railed, remaining strident. “And if you don’t leave them in my possession, my employers will kill you for sure.”
Lafitte wrapped the pouch back up, careful not to disturb its contents. “They’ll have to catch me first, won’t they?”
“And catch you they will. You can rest assured of that, pirate.”
Lafitte moved his gaze to Captain Neal before returning it to Cusp. “Captain.”
“Prepare your crew to evacuate your ship.”
“But . . .”
Lafitte now held Cusp’s stare with his black eyes. “I’m going to sink her, Captain. Punishment for the rudeness of your guest.”
Neal’s face reddened with rage. He pulled futilely against Lafitte’s pirates still holding fast to him. “I beg you to reconsider, captain to captain.”
“Too late for that, I’m afraid. Your fate is sealed.”
“And yours too now, pirate,” Quentin Cusp said, quivering in the cool of the night. “Yours too.”
San Antonio, the present
“This isn’t your play, Ranger Strong,” Captain Consuelo Alonzo of the San Antonio police said to Caitlin Strong beneath an overhang outside the Thomas C. Clark High School. Her hands were planted on her hips, one of them squeezing a pair of sunglasses hard enough to crush the frame.
Caitlin took off her Stetson and let the warm spring sunlight drench her face and raven-black hair that swam past her shoulders. Her cheeks felt flushed and she could feel the heat building behind them. She’d left her own sunglasses back in her SUV, forcing her to keep her view shielded from the sun which left the focused intensity in her dark eyes clear enough for anyone to see. Her cheekbones were ridged and angular, meshed so perfectly with her jawline that her face had the appearance of one drawn to life by an artist.
Caitlin met Alonzo’s stare with her own, neither of them budging. “Then I guess I heard wrong about a boy with a gun holding hostages in the school library.”
“No, you heard right about that. But this isn’t a Ranger matter. I didn’t call you in and my SWAT team’s already deployed.”
Caitlin gazed at the modern two-story, L-shaped mauve building shaded by thick elm and oak trees. The main entrance was located at the point of the school where the L broke directly before a nest of rhododendron bushes from which rose the school marquee listing upcoming events, including graduation and senior prom. A barricade had been erected in haphazard fashion halfway to the street to hold anxious and frantic parents behind a combination of saw horses, traffic cones, and strung-together rope.
“SWAT team for one boy with a gun?” Caitlin raised.
A news helicopter circled above, adding to Alonzo’s discomfort. “You have a problem with that? Or maybe you’ve never heard of Colombine?”
“Any shots fired yet?”
“No, and that’s the way we want to keep it.”
“Then I do have a problem, Captain. I do indeed.”
Alonzo’s face reddened so fast it looked as if she were holding her breath. She’d lost considerable weight since the day Caitlin had met her inside San Antonio’s Central Police Substation a couple years back. They had maintained a loose correspondence mostly via e-mail since, both appreciating the trials and tribulations of women trying to make it in the predominantly male world of law enforcement. Plenty accused Caitlin of riding her legendary father and grandfather’s coattails straight into the Rangers. But Alonzo’s parents were Mexican immigrants who barely spoke English and lacked any coattails to ride whatsoever. She was still muscular and had given up wearing her hair in a bun, opting instead for a shorter cut matted down by her cap.
“This is the Masters boy’s school, isn’t it?” Alonzo asked Caitlin.
“Yes, ma’am. And he still uses his mother’s last name—Torres.”
“Well, I can tell you the son of that outlaw boy friend of yours is in one of the classrooms ordered into lockdown, while we determine if there are any other perpetrators involved.”
Caitlin glanced at the black-clad commandos squatting tensely on either side of the entrance. “When was the last time your SWAT team deployed?”
“That’s none of your goddamn business.”
“Any shots fired, innocents wounded?”
The veins over Alonzo’s temples began to throb. “You’re wasting my time, Ranger.”
“And you’re missing the point. You’re going in with SWAT without exhausting any of the easier options.”
“Me,” Caitlin told her.
San Antonio, the day before
It had been four months now since Cort Wesley Masters had turned himself into the Texas authorities on an extradition request from the Mexican government. The first two of those months had been spent in a federal lock-up and the next two in the infamous Mexican Ceresco prison just over the border in Nuevo Laredo across the Rio Grande. With no other adult in the lives of his two teenage sons besides an aunt who lived in Arizona they didn’t remember meeting, Caitlin had taken it upon herself to step in and fill the void.
She’d moved into their home in the San Antonio suburb of Shavano Park, never imagining Cort Wesley’s freedom wouldn’t be secured in a timely manner, much less him being imprisoned south of the border. Having the responsibility for his boys Dylan and Luke thrust upon her for what was now an indefinite stretch of time left her feeling anxious, feeling trapped and claustrophobic. On edge in a way that made her feel like a tightrope walker negotiating a typically precarious balance, while blindfolded to boot since she’d never been responsible for anyone but herself. Given her already close relationship with the boys, Caitlin had assumed the transition would be easy and the duration relatively short, neither of which had proven true. Rangering and child rearing, even in modern times, just didn’t seem to mix well. Although she’d cut back on her duties as much as possible, raising a pair of teenagers was without question a full-time job that had hit her with the brunt force of a glass door you didn’t know was there.
“Mexican authorities haven’t given at all on the visitation rights,” Caitlin had told her captain, D. W. Tepper, just yesterday in the smaller, shaded office he’d moved into because it was cooler in the hot summer months. The office already smelled of Brut aftershave and stale cigarette smoke with stray wisps clinging to the shadowy corners well after Tepper had finished sneaking a Marlboro.
“What happened that one time they let you in?”
“I made a few comments about the conditions.”
“Imagine that didn’t go over too well.”
“State Department help some?”
“Well, since they got involved, even the e-mails stopped. He could be dead for all we know.”
“This is Cort Wesley Masters we’re talking about, Ranger,” Tepper said matter-of-factly, as if that were something Caitlin didn’t already know.
“He ain’t dead.” Tepper pulled his finger from a furrow that looked like a valley on his face and checked the nail as if expecting he’d pulled something out with it. “How’s this mothering thing going?”
“How do you think? I figured it would last a few weeks tops. That was four months ago now.”
“No choice I can see. And they’re good boys anyway, ‘less Dylan gets in his head to mix it up with stone killers again.”
“I think he’s had his fill of that. Caught him with a joint, though.”
“You arrest him?”
“Thought about it.”
“Thought about that too.”
“I caught my oldest smoking a Winston when he was twelve. Made him put it out and eat the damn thing.”
“Now that,” Caitlin told Tepper, “I didn’t think about. I don’t believe it’s a regular thing.”
“”Course it’s not,” Tepper said with a smirk. “Never is for a high school boy.”
“Dylan’s got himself in the Honors program now. Starting to get his mind set on college, even talking about a college prep year. And Luke’s so smart it’s downright scary.”
Tepper leaned back in his desk chair far enough to make Caitlin think he was going to topple over. “So how’s it feel?”
“How’s what feel?”
“Hanging up your guns.”
“When you start doing stand-up comedy?”
“When was the last time you drew your pistol?”
“Patriot Sun shoot-out, right?”
“What’s your point, Captain?”
“That in a crazy way this experience has been good for you. Something to bring you into the current century instead of figuring yourself the last of the old-time gunfighters.”
“It was never me doing the fancying.”
“You embrace it or not?”
“What’s that matter?”
Tepper tightened his gaze on her, the spider veins seeming to lengthen across his cheeks. “It’s bound to catch up with you, that’s all I’m saying.”
“You ever been known to be wrong?”
“I was going to ask you the same question.”
“Nobody’s perfect, D.W.”
Tepper’s eyes didn’t seem to blink, looking tired and drawn. “’Cept when you draw your gun, Ranger, you’d better be.”
San Antonio, the present
Captain Consuelo Alonzo closed the gap between them in a single quick step, close enough for Caitlin to smell sweet smelling perfume and stale spearmint gum. Alonzo’s neck was sunburned as if she was religious about slathering sunscreen on her face while neglecting pretty much everywhere else.
“Listen to me and listen good, Ranger,” she said, shoulders stiff and squared to Caitlin. “You got a reputation that precedes you by about a mile, and the last thing we need is your trigger finger making the call in there.”
“Save it, Captain,” Caitlin returned dismissively. “I had six weeks training with the FBI in Quantico and I’ve diffused more hostage situations without gunplay than your SWAT team has even dreamed of.”
“And this has nothing to do with Cort Wesley Masters’ son being inside the building?”
“You told me he was in a locked-down classroom, not a hostage. School of 1,500, nice to see you’ve got your thumb so centered on the situation.”
Alonzo’s cheeks puckered, her eyes suddenly having trouble meeting Caitlin’s. “Truth is we haven’t got a firm fix on who the gunman’s holding in the library.”
“I thought so. What about the suspect?”
“Near as we can tell, it’s a junior named William Langdon, age 16. Honor student with no previous criminal record. Principal says he’s been bullied.”
Caitlin turned her gaze again on two SWAT officers poised on either side of the school entrance, armed to the teeth and wearing black gear and body armor. “Yeah, men like that oughtta be able to talk him down for sure.”
“Why don’t you just button it up?”
“Because your actions are about to get people killed, Captain.”
“I’m well aware of the risk, Ranger.”
“I don’t believe you are. In rescue situations most hostages are actually shot by SWAT team commandos acting like they’re playing paintball. Once the bullets start flying, they tend to do strange things, like hit people they weren’t necessarily aimed at who have a tendency to start running in all directions.”
Alonzo looked Caitlin in the eye again. “You know your problem? You take this ‘One Riot, One Ranger’ crap too much to heart. That might have been the case a hundred and fifty years ago, but the simple truth is it’s not any more. You’re a dinosaur, Ranger Strong, a goddamn anachronism.”
“You finished, Captain?”
“Yes, I am, and so are you. You just haven’t figured it out yet.”
Spine stiffened, Captain Alonzo walked off to confer with a deputy San Antonio police chief who’d just arrived to provide political cover once the press showed up in full force. Caitlin waited until her back was turned before approaching the school entrance as if she was doing exactly what she was supposed to, pausing at the entrance to eye the SWAT commandos posted on either side.
“I’m glad to be in the background on this one, boys,” she said, reaching for the glass door. “Don’t bother moving. I’ll let myself in.”
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Fifth-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong finds herself investigating the mass murder of an offshore oilrig crew that had found the long-lost wreckage of the Mother Mary. But the same crew also uncovered something else beneath the surface of the sea, something connected to a devastating terrorist attack about to be launched on the United States by a mad American-born cleric who has recruited an army of homegrown terrorists to murder hundreds of thousands.
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1818: In the Gulf waters off the Texas coast, the pirate Jean Lafitte and his partner Jim Bowie launch an attack on the Mother Mary, a slave ship carrying an invaluable treasure on board.
The Present: Fifth-generation Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong finds herself investigating the mass murder of an offshore oilrig crew that had found the long-lost wreckage of the Mother Mary. But the same crew also uncovered something else beneath the surface of the sea, something connected to a devastating terrorist attack about to be launched on the United States by a mad American-born cleric who has recruited an army of homegrown terrorists to murder hundreds of thousands.
With the stakes higher than any she has encountered before, Caitlin races to find the connection between the secret treasure pilfered centuries before by Jean Lafitte and the deadly secret hidden on the bottom of the ocean. This as she struggles to raise the teenage sons of her imprisoned lover Cort Wesley Masters who secures his release just in time to join the fight by her side.
But shadows and subterfuge abound, starting with Teofilo Braga, a waste management baron hiding secrets born of his own past that are somehow linked to the threats America is facing today. Caitlin’s desperate path plunges her deep into that past and a similar mass murder committed near the island refuge of Lafitte himself, a case pairing her legendary father and grandfather that remains unsolved to this day.
Caitlin’s only chance to defeat the terrorists lies in solving that 30-year-old mystery now, a trek that takes her into the darkest reaches of the Louisiana bayou even as she confronts the darkest evil she has ever faced. In the end, only the strongest of vengeance can win the day, Caitlin and Cort Wesley standing with guns ready to save the country from the greatest threat it has ever faced.
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In the three thrillers to feature her heroic, crime fighting efforts, Texas Ranger Caitlin Strong has taken on everything from greedy industrialists to Mexican revolutionaries, to right-wing extremists. But Strong Vengeance pits her against her most dangerous, and real, adversary yet: homegrown Islamic terrorists.
“The biggest threat is no longer coming from the dusty landscape of Afghanistan or the mountains of Pakistan border regions. Instead, experts say, the threat now comes from within our own borders, in the form of homegrown terrorists.”
In September of 2010, the same Bipartisan Policy Center’s National Security Preparedness Group responsible for that quote wrote that, “a key shift in the past couple of years is the increasingly prominent role in planning and operations that U.S. Citizens and residents have played in the leadership of al-Qaida and aligned groups, and the higher numbers of Americans attaching themselves to these groups.”
FACT: Since 9/11 there have been 43 homegrown violent jihadist plots or attacks in the United States.
FACT: Between May, 2009 and November 2010 alone, 22 arrests were made of homegrown terrorists involved in jihadist-inspired plots by American citizens or legal permanent residents.
FACT: In 2010 the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University noted, “a spike in domestic terrorism and attacks by American citizens directed from overseas are top concerns for police departments across the country.”
FACT: 9/11 Commission Member Bruce Hoffman recently said, “The United States has failed to fundamentally understand and prepare for these threats. Terrorists may have found our Achilles’ heel. We have no strategy to deal with this growing problem and emerging threat.”
In Strong Vengeance, Caitlin finds herself racing to stop a homegrown terrorist cell from unleashing an attack based on another headline-ripped subject: the explosion of a massive “dirty bomb” composed of nuclear waste material. One study of potential terrorist tactics has identified such waste as a prime source for a potential radiological weapon. And a watchdog organization, the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), charged that “security at U.S. nuclear weapons complexes was inadequate and that hundreds of tons of weapons-grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium could be stolen, sabotaged, or even detonated.”
We need look no further than the devastating effects wrought by the damaged Japanese reactor in the wake of last year’s tsunami to see what such a radiological attack would look like, only on a much more massive scale. That’s what Caitlin Strong is up against in Strong Vengeance in fiction and what the United States may soon be up against in fact.