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Jessica Mazo interviews Jon Land, VP of Marketing of the International Thriller Writers (ITW), and author of The Caitlin Strong series, at ThrillerFest in NYC. Tom O’Brien shoots/edits. For more author interviews subscribe to our channel.
Hear from Jon as he chats about the International Thriller Writers organization and the current state of the publishing industry from an author’s perspective.
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Check out this Blogtalk Radio podcast of my interview with Tori Eldridge from Empowered Living Radio. We talk about everything from childhood, movies, writing, mentoring and how they all apply to friendship. (original article here)
Below the player, I have included the show’s information for your convenience!
Empowered Living Radio host Tori Eldridge welcomes New York Times bestselling author Jon Land to chat about Friendship. Jon has written 28 novels (including Caitlin Strong and Blaine McCracken series), is an associate member of the US Special Forces, the VP of Marketing for the International Thriller Writers Organization, and an all around friendly human! http://www.jonlandbooks.com
Recorded at http://thrillerfest.com
Music by Jim Kimo West http://jimkimowest.com
This podcast is trademarked and copyrighted by Authors on the Air Global Radio Network LLC http://authorsontheair.com
Thanks to our sponsor Michael Lowndes and PML Media, our website professionals at http://www.pmlmedia.com
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“McCracken’s back! And I couldn’t be happier. Jon Land’s The Tenth Circle is a knockout thriller blending history, cutting-edge science, and nonstop action. Ancient mysteries, ghost ships, and a modern threat like no other…this is a novel that grips you by the throat and refuses to let go until the last page.”
–James Rollins, New York Times bestselling author of The Eye of God
The Negev Desert, Israel; the present
“We have incoming, General! Anti-missile batteries are responding!”
General Yitzak Berman focused his gaze on the desperate scenario unfolding in amazingly realistic animation on the huge screen before him. Eight missiles fired from Iran sped toward all major population centers of Israel in a perfect geometric pattern, about to give the nation’s Arrow anti-missile system its greatest test yet.
“Sir,” reported the head of the analysts squeezed into the underground bunker from which Israel maintained command and control, “initial specs indicate the size, weight and sourcing of the missiles…”
“Proceed,” the general said when the analyst stopped to swallow hard.
“They’re nuclear, sir, in the fifty kiloton range.”
Another young man picked up from there. “Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Mediterranean coast, the Sinai, our primary airfields . . .” He looked back toward Sherman. “And here, sir.”
“Anti-missile batteries are launching!” a new voice blared through the strangely dim lighting that seemed to flutter as the missiles drew closer.
And Sherman watched the animated simulation of dozens and dozens of Israeli Arrow rockets, along with larger American Patriots, shooting upward in line with the incoming missiles. Four hits were scored in the maelstrom of animated smoke bursts, more rockets launched to chase down the remaining four nukes that had survived the fist salvo.
“We have two more confirmed downed!” yet another young voice rang out.
But the bunker fell silent as the sophisticated animation continued to follow two surviving Iranian missiles as they streaked toward Tel Aviv and Haifa.
“Schmai Israel, hallileh hoseh,” one of the young voices began, reciting the prayer softly as the missiles’ arc turned downward, on a direct course to their targets with nothing left to stop their flight.
“Order our fighters holding at their failsafe positions to launch their attacks,” instructed Berman. “Destroy Iran.”
He’d barely finished when two flashes burst out from the animated screen, bright enough to force several squeezed into the bunker to shield their eyes. As those flashes faded amid the stunned silence and odor of stale perspiration hanging in the air, the bunker’s regular lighting snapped back on.
“This concludes the simulation,” a mechanical voice droned. “Repeat, this concludes the simulation.”
With that, a bevy of Israeli officials, both civilian and military, emerged from the rear-most corner of the bunker, all wearing dour expressions.
Israel’s female defense minister stepped forward ahead of the others. “Your point is made, General,” she said to Berman. “Not that we needed any further convincing.”
“I’m glad we all agree that the Iranian nuclear threat can no longer be tolerated,” Berman, the highest-ranking member of the Israeli military left alive who’d fought in the Six-Day War, told them. “We’ve been over all this before. The difference is we’re now certain our defenses cannot withstand an Iranian attack, leaving us with casualty estimates of up to a million dead and two million wounded, many of them gravely. Fifty simulations, all with results similar to the ones you have just witnessed.” He hesitated, eyes hardened through two generations of war boring into the defense minister’s. “I want your formal authorization.”
“To destroy the Iranian nuclear complex at Natanz.”
Israel’s defense minister started to smile, then simply shook her head. “We’ve been over this before, a hundred times. Our army can’t do it, our air force can’t do it, our commandos can’t do it, and the Americans are saying the very same thing from their end. You want my authorization to do the impossible? You’ve got it. Just don’t expect any backup, extraction, or political cover.”
Yitzak Berman returned his gaze to the wall-sized screen where animated versions of Tel Aviv and Haifa had turned dark. “The man I have in mind won’t need of any of that.”
“Did you say man?”
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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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“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.
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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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