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The CIA created him.
He sacrificed everything for his country.
Now the Agency will stop at nothing to terminate him.
With the world focused on Afghanistan, Jack Noble finds himself on the outskirts of Baghdad, Iraq. A Marine in name only, Jack is on-loan to the CIA. Normally an integral part of the team, he finds that he is nothing more than a security detail in Iraq.
Jack and his partner Bear Logan have a run-in with four CIA special agents over the treatment of an Iraqi family. Within hours Jack and Bear are detained.
All Jack wanted was to finish his enlistment and move on with his life. All he did was intervene and save a family from unwarranted violence at the hands of four CIA agents. But he soon discovers that he did far more than intervene...
Noble has placed himself dead square in the middle of a conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of the U.S. government.
Baghdad, Iraq. March, 2002
I leaned back against a weathered stone wall. Muffled voices slipped through the cracked door. The night air felt cool against my sweat-covered forehead. A light breeze carried with it the smell of raw sewage. Orange-tinted smoke from a distant fire rose high into the sky. Wisps of smoke streaked across the full moon ahead of the mass of artificial cloud cover, threatening to block the moonlight I used to keep watch over the sleepy street while the CIA special operations team did their job inside the house. The smart team leaders kept me involved. The dumb ones left me outside to guard the entrance.
Eight years on the job. Best gig I ever had. Then Bin Laden attacked the U.S. Forty-eight hours later everything had changed. Most teams were deployed to Afghanistan. Bear and I were sent to Iraq. We’d spent six months raiding houses just like this one inside and on the outskirts of Baghdad. And just like tonight, we were kept outside the house.
The only connection we had with the Marine Corps was the ten Marines over here with us. We only saw them a couple times a week. I had no idea where the rest of our Marine brethren were, and I didn’t care. They didn’t consider us Marines any more than we considered them brethren.
“Jack?” Bear said.
Bear had been my partner and best friend since our last day of recruit training. A recruit training experience cut four weeks short.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’m tired of this.”
I turned my head, keeping my M16 aimed forward. Bear stared out into the distance. The faint orange glow of the fire cloud reflected off the sheen of sweat across his face.
“They just keep us posted outside,” he said. “Ain’t never treated us like this.”
I shrugged. He was right. But there was nothing we could do about it. Bear and I were on loan to the CIA and had to do whatever we were told. Before 9/11, we were part of the team. But the CIA agents we normally worked with stayed behind in the U.S. and Europe. The teams over here weren’t used to having two Marines with them and they weren’t receptive to the idea.
“What do you suggest we do?” I said. “Quit?”
Bear shook his head and straightened his six foot six body. He shifted his rifle in his hands and walked toward the end of the house. Beyond his large frame I spotted a group of men. Figured that was why Bear went on high alert.
There were six of them huddled together. They spoke in whispers and appeared to look in our direction. Another three men walked toward the group. From this distance they didn’t appear to be armed, but they had the cover of night on their side. Best to assume they were prepared to wreak havoc on our position.
“What do you make of that?” I asked.
Bear looked back at me with narrowed eyes and a clenched jaw.
Trouble lingered everywhere in this damn city. No one trusted us here. Every time I turned a corner I worried someone would be standing there waiting to take me out. The only person I could trust in Iraq was Bear. The CIA spec ops teams we’d been attached to looked down on us. They all seemed to be waiting for the right moment to drop us. Hell, for all I knew, they were inside that house negotiating our arrest.
Bear cleared his throat and then pointed toward the group. The nine men fanned out and began approaching our position. The sound of their voices rose from a murmur to light chatter. I made out distinct sounds. Despite being in Iraq for the past six months, I had a weak grasp on the language.
“What are they saying?” I asked.
Bear held up his hand, fingers outstretched. He cocked his head like he was looking up at the moon. His body crouched into a defensive position. The barrel of the M16 rose to waist level. He reached out with his left hand to steady the rifle. I did the same. The A3 was a much better option for security teams than the Marine standard issue A4. We could drop the entire group of men in under five seconds if we chose to do so.
“Talk to me, Bear,” I said.
He took three slow steps back, blocking my view of part of the street. He yelled something in Arabic.
The group stopped their advance. One man stepped forward. His tall, gangly body stood out from the short stocky men in the group. He lifted his arms, a handgun clutched in his right hand. I tensed and tapped my finger against the M16’s trigger. The harsh sounds of words spoken in Arabic filled the air. They echoed through the street. Then silence penetrated.
Bear turned to look at me, then smiled, then looked back at the men. He shouted in Arabic again and lifted his M16 to his shoulder.
The tall Iraqi raised his arms once again. He had put his gun away. He turned his back to us, said something to the group of men and started walking away. The mob held their positions for a moment. The tall man pushed past them. He spoke in an authoritative tone, his voice rising to a yell. They turned and followed him. A few looked back over their shoulders in our direction.
I exhaled loudly. Cool, calm and collected when others would panic. Now, however, I felt my hands trembling slightly. A deep breath reset me to normal. It was a typical sequence of events.
“Christ, Bear. What the hell was that about?”
He chuckled. “I think they’re on our side, Jack.”
“What makes you think that?” I used my sleeve to wipe a layer of cold sweat from my brow.
His smile widened. “They didn’t shoot.”
“What did you say to them… ah, forget it. You’re a crazy SOB. You know that, right?”
He shrugged, ignoring me and scanning darkened windows.
I leaned back against the wall, joined him. “You think this is what Keller had in mind when he shipped us off to the CIA?”
I had kept in touch with General Keller since he took us out of recruit training and placed us into the CIA sponsored program some eight years ago. I knew this was not what he had in mind.
Bear said, “Beats what we’d be doing otherwise.”
I threw my head back and nodded over my shoulder toward the door. “You sure about that?”
Bear shrugged. His big head shook slightly. He wiped his face and then looked at me.
“I’m not sure of much anymore, Jack. This is what I know. They ship us somewhere. We do our job. Pretty simple.”
I nodded. It was pretty simple. Eight years now and we knew the routine. We do our job. Only here, our job had been castrated down to nothing but a security detail while they did the work that would get the glory. Hopefully they’d get it soon and ship us back to the U.S.
We stood in silence. I stared at the orange glow of the cloud that covered half the sky.
The voice ripped through the air like a mortar arcing over our heads. The door whipped open. Bealle stood in the doorway.
“We need you two inside.”
I turned to face Eddie Bealle, fourth man on the totem pole of the four-man CIA spec ops team. “We’re ready to go, Bealle.”
* * *
We followed Bealle through the narrow doorway and down an even narrower hallway. The smell of burned bread filled the house. I looked over my shoulder and saw Bear shuffling sideways behind me, his broad shoulders too wide to fit square between the thin plaster walls. We turned a corner to another stretch of hall that opened up to a dimly lit room.
“What’s the deal here, Bealle?” I asked.
Bealle said nothing. He just kept walking. His rank on the team was too low to justify acting like a prick. I had wanted the opportunity to beat it out of him for weeks now. He stepped through the opening, walked across the room and rejoined his team.
I followed, stopped and stepped to the right. Bear stepped to the left.
Scott Martinez looked over and nodded. He said something in Arabic to the Iraqi man sitting on the floor. The man’s arms and legs were bound with the thick plastic ties we carried. Martinez rose from his crouching position and walked toward me. He ran a hand through his sweat-soaked short brown hair and wiped blood spatter off his cheek. He stopped a few feet in front of me. Like most spec op guys, he was a good four inches shorter than me and a head shorter than Bear. There were exceptions. My eyes drifted across the room and locked on Aaron Kiser. He stood six foot two and could look me directly in the eye.
I scanned the room, my eyes inching along the yellow stained walls and ceiling. Paintings and family photos hung crooked in obvious spots. The furniture had been pushed to the far end of the room. The captive family huddled together at the other end. The man stared blankly at the floor between his bound feet. His wife sat behind him, her black hair frizzed and disheveled. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her hands rested in her lap, bound at the wrists. Hiding behind her were two small children, one boy and one girl. Their scared faces peeked over her shoulder. Their eyes were dark with fear and darted between the men holding their family captive.
I hated this part of the job. If we had something on the man, fine. He likely did something to bring us here. But why keep the family held up like this? It seemed to be the MO over here lately, at least when working with Martinez. And I had no choice but to go with it.
“Your job here,” Martinez said, as if he had read my mind, “is to provide support. No different than any other day. I give an order, you follow. Understand?”
I shifted my eyes to his and said nothing.
Bear coughed and crossed his arms across his chest.
Martinez dropped his head and shook it. A grin formed on his lips, but his eyes narrowed. We’d butted heads more than once, and I figured he had become as sick of me as I was of him.
“I’m so tired of you two Jarheads.”
I looked over at Bear and mouthed the phrase “Jarheads” at him. He laughed.
The bound man on the floor looked up. His glassed-over eyes made contact with mine. I felt my smile fade and my lips thinned. The man’s eyes burned with hatred and desperation. He took a deep breath, and then looked down at the floor.
“Follow, Noble.” Martinez turned and held up his hand while gesturing toward me. He walked across the room and stopped in front of the Iraqi man and then kicked him in the stomach.
The man fell forward into Martinez’s legs. His face contorted into a pained expression while he struggled to fill his lungs with air.
“Get this bastard off of me,” Martinez said.
Kiser stepped forward, grabbed the Iraqi by the back of his head and dragged him to the middle of the room.
Martinez moved to the middle and crouched down. He looked the Iraqi man in the eyes.
“I want you to see this. See what your failure to give us any information has led to.”
Martinez stood and walked over to the man’s wife. He reached under her arm and yanked her to her feet. She gasped, and her children cried out. They grabbed at her with their tiny hands. Bealle and Richard Gallo led the woman by her elbows to the wall across from me. Martinez followed. He stood in front of the woman, leaned in and whispered in her ear.
Her eyes scanned the room and met mine. A tear rolled down her thin face. Her mouth opened slightly. Her lips quivered. She bit her bottom lip and then mouthed the word “please” to me. Martinez brought a hand to her cheek, and she started crying.
Martinez moved to his right and looked over his shoulder at the man on the floor.
“Isn’t your wife worth it?” His face lit up as he said it, and his eyes grew wide and the corners of his mouth turned upwards in a sadistic grin. I noticed his respirations increased fivefold. The spec ops leader appeared to find the exchange exhilarating.
The Iraqi man said nothing. He held his head high and his shoulders back. He stood defiant on his knees.
Martinez brushed the woman’s hair back behind her ears and leaned in toward her again and whispered something to her. She let out a loud sob and then took a deep breath to compose herself. She looked toward her children and said something in Arabic, and then she turned to Martinez and spit in his face.
He stepped back and used the back of his hand to wipe his face. Then he struck her with the same hand. Her head jerked back and hit the wall with a thud. Her body slumped to the floor. Martinez reached out with one hand and grabbed her by the neck and with his other hand he pulled his pistol from its holster, pressing the black gun barrel against the side of her head. His hand slid up from her neck and squeezed her cheeks in. The pressure of his hands against the sides of her face jarred her mouth open. He jammed the barrel of the gun in her mouth.
“Is this what you want?” He paused a moment. “Huh? Want your kids to see your brains blown all over this wall?”
I felt rage build. This was wrong in every sense of the word. I took a step forward. Bear’s large hand came down on my shoulder and held me back.
“Get the kids out of the room, Martinez,” I said.
Martinez straightened up and cocked his head. His arms dropped to his side, and then he turned to face me. He stared at me for a few seconds and lifted a finger in my direction. The woman slid down the wall and crawled on the floor to her kids.
“Noble,” he said. “I told you that you follow my orders. Not the other way around. You got it?”
“Let,” I took a step forward, “the kids,” another step, “leave the room.” I kept moving forward until we met chest to chest and eyes to chin.
I heard weapons drawn around the room and the floor creaking behind me, a sign that Bear was moving into position.
“Gallo,” Martinez said.
“Yeah?” Gallo said, stepping out of the shadowy corner he had occupied.
“Move the man to the corner, then the woman,” Martinez said.
Gallo did as instructed. The family huddled together in the far corner of the room.
“Now stay here, Gallo,” Martinez said. “Rest of you outside. Now.”
I felt the barrel of a gun in my back but didn’t turn to see who it was.
“You two leave your weapons behind,” Martinez said.
We moved back through the narrow hall to the slightly wider doorway. Bear stepped outside first, I went second, and Kiser came out behind me with Bealle and finally Martinez in tow.
The moon now hovered directly above the street, beyond the cover of the orange smoke. I scanned the street and spotted a group of men hanging out a few blocks away. Were they the same men from earlier or perhaps a new group of men not as friendly as the last? Their chatter stopped. They turned to face us. A few of them stepped forward. Were they planning to attack? That wouldn’t be a bad thing, of course. It might give us and the CIA spec ops something in common to fight, instead of each other.
“You guys keep an eye on him,” Martinez said.
I swung my head around and saw Kiser and Bealle aim their guns on Bear. Like us, they carried Beretta M9 9mm pistols. Weapon of choice, it seemed. I followed Martinez’s movements as he paced a five foot area in the middle of the street.
“Noble,” Martinez said. “Step on out here.”
I looked at Bear, and he nodded in return, and then winked. I crossed the packed dirt yard and stepped into the street.
Martinez lunged at me the moment my foot hit the pavement.
I ducked his blow and followed up by pushing his back. His momentum sent him into the side of the house. He reached out with his arms and came to a grinding halt. He turned, rolled his head. His neck and shoulders cracked and popped.
Kiser and Bealle kept their weapons pointed at Bear, but their eyes were fixed on Martinez.
I made the next move and engaged Martinez. We danced in a tight spiral, trading blows of fist and foot. Every connection sent a cloudburst of sweat and blood into the air. The two of us struck and countered with the precision of two highly trained prize fighters. We were equals now.
Martinez threw a flurry of punches. One landed on the side of my head. The blow knocked me to the ground. I knew his next move would be to kick me in the midsection. I quickly rolled and got to my hands and feet.
Martinez backed up.
I looked to the side. Saw black combat boots less than four feet away. I didn’t have to look up to know the boots didn’t belong to Bear. He wore brown boots.
Martinez started toward me. I had to time my attack just right. If I struck too soon Martinez would be out of my reach. Too late and he’d be upon me before I would have a chance to react.
I took a deep breath as time slowed down. Martinez’s boots hit the packed dirt, heel then toe, left then right. He was ten feet way, then eight, then six.
I launched into the air to the right and twisted my body. Kiser didn’t have time to react other than to turn slightly toward me. His outstretched right arm moved too slowly. My body continued to twist to the right, and I whipped my left arm around. My hand wrapped into a fist and struck Kiser’s windpipe hard and fast. He let out a loud gasp as the impact caused him to drop his gun. His hands went to his neck as he stumbled backward and fell to the ground. He tried to suck air into his lungs, but his crushed throat wouldn’t allow it. His lungs shriveled and his face turned red, then blue, and scrunched up into a contorted look of agony.
Martinez closed the gap between the two of us. It was the right move at the wrong time. What he should have done was pulled his weapon. Again, I ducked and slipped to the side, letting his momentum carry him a good ten feet away from me.
I cast a quick glance toward Bear, who held Bealle’s limp body against the building with his left hand while his right delivered punch after furious punch.
With Bealle and Kiser out of commission, I turned to deal with Martinez, who had just scraped himself off the ground and was approaching. I still couldn’t figure out why he didn’t pull his gun on me. End it quickly. He stepped over Kiser’s limp body, coming to a stop a few feet away from me.
I heard a body hit the ground behind me and then Bear appeared next to me.
Martinez lunged forward. I moved to the side and brought a fist down across the bridge of his nose, sending him to the ground, hard. Bear picked him up, and then drove two hard blows to the man’s face and then tossed him onto the ground next to Bealle.
We reentered the house with our guns drawn and confronted Gallo. He gave up without a fight.
“You people should leave,” I said to the family. “Tonight. Now.”
Bear removed the thick plastic ties that bound their arms together.
The family huddled together. Each parent scooped up a kid.
“Follow us out and then go.” I grabbed my M16 from its resting spot on the wall and then led the family down the narrow hall. I stopped by the door, took a deep breath and then stuck my head outside. It was deserted. Martinez and his men and even the group of Iraqi men down the street had bailed. I saw flashing lights reflecting off the surrounding buildings as sirens filled the air.
“Bear,” I called down the hall. “We need to get out of here.”
Jack Noble has 37 to stop a madman hell bent on tearing him down.
Jack is back in the second page-turning novel in the USA Today bestselling Jack Noble Thriller Series by Wall Street Journal bestselling author L.T. Ryan.
Washington, D.C. Midday. A man waits at a bus stop, his intentions unknown. Two government operatives have been stalking him for days, waiting for him to make his move. Unexpectedly, the man takes off running and heads for a deserted warehouse.
Jack Noble and his partner, Frank Skinner, believe the man to be part of a terrorist organization that is involved in smuggling drugs and guns and men into the country. But it turns out their plan involves far more export than import, and hits a lot closer to home.
As the case unfolds, the man behind it all reaches out to Jack with a simple message... 37 hours.
December 19, 2004
Six feet. A deadly distance. Especially when one man has a gun aimed at another. Close enough to take missing out of the equation. Far enough away that the target has slightly more than a zero percent chance of making a move, whether to disarm the assailant or duck and cover.
The guy I'd been hunting in the dusty and dimly lit warehouse found me first. I had taken a set of splintered wooden stairs to the catwalk that wrapped the interior edges of the building and cut across the center of the large rectangular room. I hustled up the steps, two at a time. The old wooden boards sagged and creaked and moaned, but held under my weight. The catwalk was stronger, sturdier. It didn't move in response to me. No bouncing. No side-to-side sway. One foot fell in front of the other as I sidestepped along the catwalk. I let my feet hit the floor from the outside in, minimizing the noise. Still, the planks gave off a slight thump in response to my boots hitting the wood. I knew if I wasn't careful, he'd hear me.
And he did.
Fortunately, I heard his footsteps, too. Unfortunately, I only heard them a second before he spoke.
"Stop," he said. His accent was thick, perhaps South American. "Drop your gun."
I froze and lifted my hands, letting the gun swing like a pendulum, upside down and with only my index finger holding it up by the trigger guard.
"Drop it," he said.
I dipped my finger to the side and let the gun slide off and over the railing. It hit the floor with a thud, managing to keep from discharging a round. The cold handle of my backup piece rested reassuringly against my lower back, sending chills through me as the cold metal touched my sweaty skin.
"Now turn around," he said.
I turned in a half-circle and got my first good look at the man I'd been chasing for the last twenty minutes. He stood approximately five foot nine and weighed probably one-eighty. He wore a tan jacket and black knit cap. Sparse dark hair covered his cheeks and chin. His eyes matched his hair. He stood six feet away, a pistol held close to his chest and aimed at me.
A distance of six feet increased his odds of being deadly accurate.
A distance of six feet reduced my chances of effectively neutralizing him.
Even at six-two, my reach wasn't enough to land an effective blow in this situation.
"Who the hell are you?" he said.
"I'm the man who was sent to kill you," I said.
"Who's your boss?"
"Because I want to write him a letter to recommend he fires you."
I chuckled. The guy had a sense of humor, only the look on his face said he wasn't joking.
"Why's that?" I said.
"Because you failed this class, asshole." He lifted the barrel of the gun and waved it back and forth, like a mother scolding her toddler.
"Only problem," I said, "is this is only recess. Playtime for you."
The man forced a laugh. "You're the one following me, so you must have some idea who I am."
"Not really." And that was the truth. Frank Skinner and I had acted on a single piece of information that said a man fitting the guy's description would be waiting at a bus stop.
"Well, let me give you the abridged version," he said. "I'm someone you shouldn't be following. You should have done your homework first. Now it's too late for you."
I smiled. "First, enough with the school analogies. Second, it's never too late for me."
His eyes narrowed. He brought his left hand up and wiped his cheek with his palm. His eyes darted upward and mine followed along. Light shone through a tiny hole in the roof. Bright, but gray. Rainwater dripped through the hole and spattered the man's face. He cursed under his breath as a bead of water slapped against his cheek. He'd have to move and his next step would seal my fate.
The man didn't move, though. Not immediately, at least. Two more drops hit him, then a third. Finally, he cursed and took a step forward. Six feet had been reduced to five. Still out of my reach, but not by much. If I lunged forward, I could reach him in one step instead of two.
"Give it up," I said. "We've got the warehouse surrounded. You won't make it out of here."
"Then neither will you." His eyes widened and he stuck his arm all the way out. Another mistake. His wrist flicked up and down, jerking the gun in and out of aim.
I saw my opportunity. The distance between the gun and me had been reduced by at least two-and-a-half feet. A full step and I'd have him by the wrist, neutralizing the immediate threat.
A crashing sound to my right startled both of us. I turned my head and saw a door to the outside open. Light flooded the ground floor of the warehouse and the silhouette of a man slipped through the opening and then disappeared into the shadows. I had lied when I said we had the building surrounded. There were only two of us, and I had left Frank behind a block away from the building. Either he had caught up, or the man hadn't been alone, in which case it would be two against me.
"Freeze!" Frank's voice echoed through the warehouse.
The man forgot about me and turned toward Frank. Bright muzzle blast exploded in front of me as the man opened fire on my partner.
Frank didn't return fire, hopefully in an effort to avoid wounding me, and not because he'd been hit. I couldn't worry about that, though. The man stood five feet away, his body turned and his arms outstretched over the steel railing. The time to make a move was now.
I lunged forward, left arm out, right arm up, closing the distance before the man could react. I wrapped my left hand around his throat from the side, letting my thumb slide below his Adam's apple. He grunted against the pressure. At the same time I drove my right arm down, catching him on his wrist, which extended out a few feet over the railing. I twisted his arm and drove it down into the steel railing. Bone and steel met with a sickening crack followed by the sounds of the man screaming. His broken arm and spasming muscles could no longer muster up the strength required to hold the sidearm, and he dropped it. It hit the floor below us with a clank.
"Frank?" I yelled.
The man reached across his body with his left arm and punched at my face, his fist connecting with my nose. Although he didn't have enough momentum to do any real damage, the blow managed to disrupt my grip on his neck. The center of my face stung and my eyes flooded with tears. I felt him break away from my grasp.
"My arm," he said. "You bastard, you broke my damn arm."
I heard the sound of a knife being pulled from a sheath, blade against leather. I brought my palms to my eyes and wiped away the tears that blurred my vision. Once again, the man stood six feet away from me. His fractured right arm pressed against his chest. In his left, he held a knife with a six-inch blade. The light caught and winked off the stainless steel as he twirled it in his palm.
This time six feet didn't matter. I didn't have to contend with a bullet. In a fluid motion, I lunged forward and grabbed the railing on either side with both hands. Then I swung my legs forward while drawing my knees in. I drove the soles of my combat boots into his chest. He shrieked as they connected with his broken arm. The knife fell from his hand and bounced off the catwalk and fell to the concrete warehouse floor.
My momentum carried my body through, knocking the man down. He turned onto his stomach and began crawling away. His left arm scraped and scratched against the worn wooden planks while his right dragged behind, bent awkwardly at the wrist.
"Jack," Frank shouted from below.
I walked up behind the man and stood over him and said nothing. I reached down and wrapped my right arm around his neck. His pulse thumped hard against the crook of my arm. I reached around with my left arm and grabbed my right elbow and pulled back hard. The movement squeezed the man's neck shut. I didn't care whether he died from asphyxiation, a broken neck, or if his head popped off.
The man clawed at my forearm. He swung his hips side to side, but he was no match for me. Desperate attempts to breathe were cut off by the force I exerted against his trachea.
"Jack, let him go."
I looked up and saw Frank standing at the end of the catwalk.
"Come on, Jack," he said. "We need this guy. He's got info for us."
"I don't care," I said as I squeezed tighter.
Frank approached with a hint of caution, perhaps thinking I'd snapped. He'd have been right if he thought it, too. "Let him go, Jack. Let's get him to the office and question him. Then you can do whatever you want to him."
The man's knit cap had fallen off and his sweat soaked hair brushed against my face as his body went limp. I pulled back and looked at Frank and then the man. Frank's words filtered through the rage that kept me from thinking straight, and suddenly they made sense. I let go of the man and his body fell against the catwalk, limp and lifeless.
I reached over and grabbed the railing and pulled myself up. "Christ, I think I killed him."
Frank tucked his gun and squatted down. He reached out and placed his hand on the man's neck. After a few seconds, he said, "He's got a pulse. Help me get him downstairs and into the car."
"So that's where you were," I said. "Pulling the car around instead of chasing him in here with me."
"You took off, Jack. I lost you." He looked up and I met his gaze with a smile.
"Only giving you a hard time." I bent over, scooped my hands under the man's shoulders, and lifted him up. Frank grabbed his legs and we carried him down the rickety stairs, which screamed in response to close to six hundred pounds of force pressing down on them.
Frank had parked the car right outside the warehouse entrance, trunk to door.
"I'm going to make sure it's clear out there," he said.
I nodded and leaned against the heavy steel framed door for support. The man started to come to. He coughed a few times and a deep, guttural groan emanated from his throat. I thought about rendering him unconscious again, but decided against it. A blow to the head might dampen his memory, and we needed to know everything he knew.
Frank opened the back door on the driver's side of his Lincoln and gestured for me to come out.
I backed out of the warehouse, dragging the guy with me. I looked to the left and to the right. The area was empty. I didn't bother to stare into windows, though. If someone was watching us, so be it. We'd be gone by the time the cops came. And even if they caught up to us, there was little they could do. We were, for all intents and purposes, untouchable.
The rain had stopped and the sun peeked through the melting clouds. The light penetrated my eyes like shards of glass. Cold wind whipped around the sides of the building, meeting at the spot where I stood. It felt like being pelted with icy snowballs from both sides.
"Give me a hand," I said.
Frank came closer and reached out for the man's right arm in an effort to stabilize it. Together we slid him into the back seat and buckled him in. I handcuffed his left wrist to the metal post that connected the headrest to the front passenger's seat.
"Sit in back with him," Frank said. "If he gets out of line," he looked at the man and smiled, "well, you know what to do."
I nodded, then walked around the back of the car and got in on the opposite side. I slid in next to the man and, for the first time, realized that he smelled like he hadn't showered in a week.
"If you hadn't been armed, I'd have thought you were a bum," I said.
The man pursed his lips and spit, his saliva smattering the back of the seat in front of him as well as the center console next to Frank.
I drove my elbow into his solar plexus. He coughed an exhale as the air drained from his lungs. His body doubled over, chin to knees.
"Try it again," I said.
He turned his head toward me. His face was deep red and the veins in his forehead stuck out like a snake swimming through water. His mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water as he tried to suck in air, but couldn't.
"Keep him quiet," Frank said.
I nodded while staring at the man as he held his arm close to his chest. I said to Frank, "Go ahead and call the doc in to set and splint that arm."
Frank drove us to SIS's unofficial headquarters. Though we said unofficial, the building outside of Washington, D.C. was our primary location. However, any building we occupied for the purpose of advancing our mission would be considered our headquarters and always labeled unofficial. The SIS was an agency that didn't exist. The primary focus of the group was counter-terrorism. We had complete and total autonomy. We could push any other agency to the back of the line if we felt our cause took precedence. The agents in our group were considered elite, and often handpicked from among the top recruits of the CIA, FBI and DEA. Only a handful of politicians and higher ups in the military knew of the agency's existence, and if you asked them, they'd flat out deny it, even if there was a gun to their head.
We pulled up around the rear of the building. Frank stopped in front of what appeared to be a wall. If you stood close enough, and in the right spot, you'd see a tiny crack that ran up its center, then turned to the right and met another thin crack. Frank pulled a device out of his pocket and pushed a button. A wide door opened out and Frank drove into a dark garage. The place was empty except for my car, a large SUV, and a four-door maroon Lexus that belonged to the doctor.
I waited in the back seat after Frank parked and cut the engine. He got out, walked around the back and opened the door next to the man. I removed the handcuff from his left wrist and pushed the man out while Frank pulled. The guy stumbled out and fell to the ground. He groaned and clutched at his broken arm.
"Get up," Frank told the guy.
I slid through the open door. The guy was on his knees, bent over with his forehead resting on the concrete floor. I grabbed him by his shirt collar and pulled the man's upper body straight up. Frank reached under his left arm and started pulling. I grabbed his collar and the waistband of his pants. We got him to his feet, and then led him to the only door in the garage.
Frank swiped an access card through a security card reader and the light changed from red to green. He then placed his thumb on a pad. There was a series of beeps, and another light turned from red to green. Then the lock clicked and Frank turned the door handle. We walked down a short hall and came to the area of the main floor that we called the lobby. There were two doors on the far wall. Each door led to an interrogation room. A four by six foot mirrored window was placed a foot away from each door. Opposite the interrogation rooms was our infirmary, a state of the art medical facility that was equipped for everything from bee stings to surgery. There were six offices in the lobby, three on the north wall, and three on the south. My office was next to Frank's. The third office on our side was designated for all of team B.
The stale air of the lobby enveloped us. The smell of ammonia hardly affected me anymore, but the guy we were dragging down the hall coughed and gagged as he breathed in the fumes.
The doctor stood in the doorway of the infirmary. He was tall and middle aged. His full head of hair was half brown, half gray. His long, pointy nose was the only distinguishing feature on his face. He nodded toward our prisoner. "What's wrong with him?"
"Broken arm," I said. "Maybe a concussion, too. But that shouldn't matter."
The doctor shrugged and nodded over his shoulder. "Drop him in there."
"You want one of us to stay?" I asked.
"Him." The doctor pointed at Frank. "You ask too many questions, Mr. Noble."
Frank laughed and the doctor joined in. I said nothing. He had a point. I did tend to ask a lot of questions when he was working on one of us. I often thought that if my life had gone a bit differently when I was young, I could have ended up a doctor or trauma surgeon.
I left the infirmary and went to my office. I stacked a few manila folders and moved them to the corner of the desk, then started a pot of coffee. The rich aroma of the dark grinds soaked the air in my office. I didn't feel like waiting for the full pot to brew, so I emptied it into a stained mug as soon as there was enough. I held the mug in both hands and leaned back in my chair. The caffeine coursed through my veins, providing the jolt I needed.
I got up and left my office and walked back to the infirmary. Frank glanced at me and said nothing. He concentrated on the guy's broken arm. I took a few more steps and stopped inside the doorway and leaned against the frame.
"Out," the doctor said.
I could tell by his tone that he was serious. We tried hard to avoid pissing Doc off, because you never knew when you were going to need him to treat you. I shrugged and backed up a few feet. Turned around and leaned back against the wall a couple yards from the door. I lifted the coffee to my face and inhaled. Steam singed the inside of my nose for a second. I took a sip. It was strong. Perhaps a bit too strong, if there was such a thing. I decided it didn't matter. The brew helped clear the cobwebs from my head, and that was always welcome.
Behind me, I heard the sound of bone grating against bone. The doctor was setting the fracture. The man screamed as his ulna and then radius were placed in their natural positions. I took his cries of pain as a sign that the doctor hadn't bothered to numb the guy up. I was OK with that, and apparently Frank was too. Why waste our supplies on a criminal?
With the doctor almost finished, I started to think about what questions to ask the man. We didn't know much about him, except that he showed up at a place that our intel indicated would be a spot where something would happen. But we had no idea who this guy was. What was he doing near the bus stop? Was he a part of the group we were tracking, or doing business with them? Why did he run from us? Why did he try to kill me?
Both Frank and I had a feeling we were closing in on something big. Every piece of evidence we had gathered so far pointed to this being a terrorist cell. The only good thing about that was that we didn't have to turn it over to the FBI or DEA. These guys had been running drugs and guns and smuggling people in and out of the States for months. If it were one of those activities, we'd be out of the loop. But it wasn't one activity. It was the full gamut.
It also appeared that they had funding from some big businesses in hostile places, as well as possible connections with powerful people in the U.S. Homeland tried to take over on account of this. Frank managed to push them back.
The men themselves were a mix of U.S. citizens, Colombians, and guys from the Middle East. That was the only thing that clouded our initial assumption. Why were so many different groups working together? I hoped that this guy, who looked like he might be Colombian, could tie some of those loose ends together for us. Assuming he talked, that is.
"OK, Mr. Noble," the doctor said from the other side of the wall. "He's all yours."
I drank the last of my coffee and pushed off the infirmary wall and met Frank and the man at the entrance. The doctor had set the bone and placed an air cast over the man's forearm. The guy sat on the edge of the gurney, shoulders slumped, head hanging, and eyes focused on the floor.
"Take him to room one," I said to Frank. Then I turned to the doctor. "Can he hold up?"
The doctor shrugged. "Maybe. I'll stick around. I've got a few things that can help keep him up and awake through whatever you do to him."
"You won't want to watch if it gets to that."
"With what you guys pay me, I can watch anything."
"Go wait in your office. We'll get you if we need you."
The doctor held up his hands. He then crossed the room and went into his office, which was on the wall opposite of mine. He closed his door and took a seat behind his computer. I glanced in as I passed and saw the familiar green game board of computer solitaire.
Frank had placed the guy in the interrogation room and now stood on the outside, watching the man through the smoky mirrored glass.
"What do you think?" I said as I stopped next to him, a few feet separating us.
"No doubt he's got information. And if our intel was right, he was at that bus stop for a reason."
I nodded and said nothing, waiting for Frank to continue.
"Something was about to go down," Frank said.
I nodded again, remaining quiet.
"Question is what, Jack? And is he one of them? Or was he there to meet them?"
"Great questions, Frank," I said. "Only one way to find out."
He nodded and smiled. "You ready?"
"Not quite." I took two steps to the right and adjusted the thermostat, turning it down to fifty degrees. "Let's freeze him out for a bit."
Half an hour passed while we downed two cups of coffee each. Neither of us said much. After two years of working together, there was no need for idle banter between us. Both of us knew what needed to be done. We each had our own tactics, and they played well off one another.
I got up and went to check on the man. He looked considerably uncomfortable. "Let's go, Frank."
Frank entered the room ahead of me. He sat at the far end of a rectangular wooden table. I sat in the middle, opposite our prisoner. The man looked between us. His lips quivered and his teeth chattered. He sniffled and shivered.
"Can we get you anything?" Frank asked.
"A coat," the man replied.
"We can do that," Frank said. "Can't we, Jack?"
I nodded. "Sure, but first you need to answer a few questions for us."
The man stared at a spot on the table and said nothing.
"What's your name?" I said.
The man said nothing.
"Your name?" I said again.
"Pablo," he said without looking up.
"What were you doing at that bus stop?" I said.
The man slowly turned his head. His teeth stopped chattering as he clenched his jaw. Muscles rippled at the bottom corners of his face. He licked his lips and calmly said, "I want my lawyer. I'm not saying anything until my lawyer is here."
Frank laughed. "I'm sorry. Do you think you have rights down here? Jack, did you read this guy his rights?"
I shook my head and said nothing.
Frank stood and positioned himself next to me, across the table from the guy. "OK, asshole, here are your rights. You have the right to sit in that chair. You have the right to answer every friggin' question we ask you. You don't have the right to remain silent. Your efforts to remain silent are going to be met with a pain so intense you'll wish we had amputated your arm instead of breaking it. You don't get a lawyer or a chaplain or your mommy. That doctor over there, he's on our side. He can give you medication to keep you awake through any amount of pain we put you through. You won't pass out, asshole. You'll cry until you have no more tears. You'll puke until all your stomach is barren and all you can do is dry heave. So answer my partner's question or your pain is going to start in about thirty seconds."
The man clenched the hand of his good arm into a fist. His eyes watered. I assumed the reality of the situation hit him at that moment. We weren't the cops and there was nothing legal about us. At least not in any sense that he, or most people, understood. Frank and I were authorized to do our jobs, no matter what it took. We could come and go and shoot to kill without asking questions, and without having questions asked of us.
Frank placed both hands on the table and leaned over until he was no more than a foot from the guy's face. "So what's it going to be?"
The man pulled his head back a few inches. His lips thinned and his cheeks puffed out. Frank jerked to the side in time to avoid most of the spittle that flew out of the guy's mouth.
Frank reached out and grabbed the man's right wrist and yanked up, then down. The man screamed as the jagged edges of his broken bones grated against one another.
Frank pulled out a knife. "The bones are already broken. Shouldn't be tough to cut through. Then there's a mess of veins and nerves and meat and flesh. You want to see what it's like to hold your own severed arm?"
"Enough," the man said through clenched teeth. "I'll talk. I'll talk."
The left side of Frank's mouth turned upward in a smile. He broke the guy down fast. While we'd seen some turn faster, we expected this guy to last a few rounds before caving in.
Frank let go and the man pulled his broken arm to his chest and cradled it with his left arm. He let out a couple sobs, and then wiped his eyes dry. Tears stained his cheeks and settled into his thin facial hair.
"What do you want to know?" he said.
"I want to know what you were doing at the bus stop," I said.
He licked his lips and leaned back in the chair and let out a loud exhale. "Got a smoke?"
I looked at Frank and nodded. Frank reached into his pocket and pulled out a soft pack. He tapped the open end against his palm and retrieved three cigarettes. He lit two and handed one to the man, then rolled the third across the table to me. I tucked it behind my ear, choosing to save it for later.
"The bus stop is where the pickup was going to be made," the guy said.
"What pickup?" I said.
He shifted his eyes from the table to me. "The kid."
I felt Frank's eyes settle on me, but I didn't look back at him. "What kid?"
The man's facial expression changed. The pain and anger lifted, and a bemused look crossed his face. "What did you pick me up for, man?"
"We've been tracking you guys for months. We've got you for drugs, guns, and smuggling terrorists in and out of the country."
The guy leaned his head back and laughed. The spasmodic motion of his body jolted his arm a few inches more than was comfortable and he scrunched his face in pain. After a few seconds he steadied himself and said, "OK, you're onto something with the guns and drugs. They pay well. But the terrorists in and out, you're way off."
"What then?" Frank said. "And what about the kids?"
"Is that all you got? You think these people entered and exited the country alone?" The smile returned to Pablo's face.
"Stop screwing with us," Frank said. "What are you talking about the-"
"Frank," I said. "He's talking about us being way off. This isn't a terrorist cell."
Pablo's eyebrows arched up into his forehead and his smile widened. He looked between Frank and me and nodded vigorously.
I continued, "They're child smugglers. He was at the bus stop today because he was going to kidnap a child."
"You son of a bitch." Frank charged the man and punched him three times in the head, rendering him unconscious.
By the time I got across the table, Frank had backed up. He looked down at the bloodied face of Pablo and shook his hand, which was equally covered in blood. I couldn't tell if it was all Pablo's, or if Frank had split a knuckle or two.
"Well, that was tactful," I said.
"I got kids, Jack."
"Christ," Frank said as he stepped around Pablo and made his way toward the door. "What now?"
I followed Frank out into the lobby. The door slammed behind us, echoing through the room. The doctor looked up and saw us and opened his door.
"Need me to do anything?" he asked.
"Smelling salts," I said. "And check his arm. It might need to be set again."
The doctor reached for his bag. "That's why I went with the air cast," he said with a smile.
Frank stood in the middle of the room with his hands on his hips and his head leaned back.
"You need to get it together," I said. "I'll have you pulled from this."
"I'm good. I'm good."
"OK," I said. "We need to get some more information out of him. Now, I don't think he's going to give up anyone else, at least, not yet. But maybe we can get the location of where they are keeping these kids."
"You sure about this? What if he's jerking us around?" Frank said.
"That's why we need the location. We can verify it in person, then come back and hammer on him some more, and then we'll lead a raid on the place."
Frank nodded as the doctor emerged from the interrogation room.
"He's ready for you guys again," the doctor said.
I grabbed Frank by his shoulders. "Let me do the talking." Then I pushed him toward the room. I wanted Frank to enter first, figuring it would cause the man to feel a little more unsettled.
Pablo was conscious when we entered, but he looked confused.
"Where are you keeping them?" I said.
"Who?" Pablo said.
"In a house."
"Northern Virginia. Suburbs."
"I don't know the name of the neighborhood. Spring Street. Ninth house on the right."
"Going which way?"
"You can only enter from the north."
I looked at Frank. He nodded.
"Good enough." I stepped to the door and pulled it open. Turned back and saw Frank stop in front of Pablo and lean over and drive his fist into the side of the man's face again.
"Was that necessary?" I said.
Frank looked at me, then at Pablo, then back at me. "Yes."
he addictive USA Today bestselling thriller series is back as Wall Street Journal bestseller L.T. Ryan's former government assassin Jack Noble races from New York, to Paris, to Washington D.C. on the trail of a rogue agent marked for termination.
When friends can no longer be trusted, and enemies must be, Noble is forced to make a decision that will compromise his integrity, his conscience, and his life.
Noble faces a simple choice. Right or wrong. Life or death. It's a thin line.
What side of that line is Jack Noble on?
Fans of Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan, Lee Child's Jack Reacher, Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp, and Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne will enjoy this Jack Noble suspense thriller.
December 31, 2006
"THE TARGET'S NAME is Brett Taylor, and this'll be your toughest assignment yet."
Frank Skinner set the blue folder in front of me, opened to Taylor's service record. A paper clip held a small photo to the upper left side of the folder. A head shot of a face chiseled from stone, with eyes that gave a glimpse into a heart made of ice. I read over the file, then glanced at the picture again. I might as well have been looking into a mirror. There were a few similarities between me and the target. Physically we were identical: 6'2", 220. We'd both enlisted in the military at the age of eighteen. He went into the Army; I became a Marine. We had both been selected for special assignment during boot camp.
I turned to the next page. It was blank. Every single one that followed was as well. There were only a few reasons for that.
"I'm not kidding, Jack," Frank continued. He pushed off the desktop and rolled backward. A rusted wheel squeaked until his chair collided into the wall with a soft thud. "This guy makes you look like a teddy bear. While you were off playing with the CIA guarding doors in Baghdad and whatnot, Taylor was doing black ops so insidious that any record indicating they'd ever even been thought of has been incinerated. When you were playing anti-terrorist agent along with me, he was taking down cell leaders before they even knew that they wanted to blow something up. He's the ultimate government weapon. And my understanding is that lately those hostile to the Nation's interests were not his only targets."
I looked up from the documents and met Frank's stare. His dark eyes didn't waver. I saw fear, perhaps. Anytime we had one of these meetings, Frank looked serious. Lips, nose, jaw, eyebrows, all could be manipulated. But his tone and gestures conveyed more concern than I'd ever seen from him. And we had a history that went back nearly five years to the summer of 2002, when he had hand-selected me to join him as his partner in the SIS. Together, we'd faced our share of men who had no regard for the welfare of others - so many that Frank's warning list read like the back of a cereal box.
What was so different about Brett Taylor?
"Can you give any examples?"
Frank leaned back in his chair and placed both hands behind his shaking head. "You know I can't do that."
"A hint, then?"
Frank said nothing. He bit at his bottom lip - a tell that he was considering revealing more than he should. I had to press.
"Hell, give me a country, Frank. I can take it from there."
For guys like us, news headlines read like a Who's Doing What in the espionage and assassin community. Nothing was ever as tidy as they made it sound in the papers and on TV.
Frank shook his head. "Can't do it. Not yet, at least. You live to finish the job, then we'll talk."
I closed the folder, pushed it toward Frank. "Nothing but a bunch of blank pages in there."
"That's to make a point."
"Don't underestimate this guy. Every single one of those blank pages, and there's at least fifty, could be filled with details of the assignments this guy has completed."
"I get it. He's a badass. Jesus, Frank. How long have I been doing this?" I rose and shoved the chair to the side with my leg, and then leaned back against the glass wall and shoved my hands in my pockets. The glass felt cold against the back of my arms.
Frank remained silent. Thick jaw muscles rippled at the corners of his face as he stared me down. There was plenty about Taylor, and the job, that he wasn't willing to share. Or had been prohibited from revealing. At times, things worked that way. We'd all become accustomed to it. And it was beneficial. The less I knew about a target, the easier it was to complete the assignment. The less Frank knew, the less guilt there might be over handing it over to me. I operated with the general understanding that if a government agency signed off on an order and sent me to someone's door, there was a pretty good reason. The justice I was dispatched to enforce was quick and generally merciful.
We should all be so lucky.
So, Brett Taylor, while he provided service to his country for over a decade, must've done something pretty heinous for me to be sitting across from Frank, staring at a blank service record.
I sat down, placed my arm on the desk, leaned forward. "Where and when?"
"New York," he said. "Brooklyn. Close to Prospect Park. He's due back ten days from now, on Tuesday, the ninth."
I had a place in New York. A few friends there, too. It'd be better if they didn't know I was coming into town, though. Not for something like this.
"Know his itinerary?" I said.
"Not yet, but we'll get it."
"He in the States now?"
"Coming in international."
"Not sure yet."
"I'll have Bear tail him."
Frank pressed his lips together so tightly they turned white. He'd never been a fan of my partner, Riley "Bear" Logan, whose nickname suited the guy in more ways than one. The big man and I had been best friends since boot camp. After I left the SIS, we went into business for ourselves. I trusted him with my life, and I didn't care what any of my contacts thought. Bear handled himself and got results. We were a great team.
Better than Frank and I ever were.
"He's in," I said. "Or I'm out."
Frank took a few deep, ragged breaths, and then nodded. "I'll make sure you have the flight info in time. I'm waiting on additional details of Taylor's offices, residences, and so on, in case there are alternatives. I'll fax them over as soon as I get them. Meanwhile, limit how many sources you reach out to. As you can imagine, if something this high-profile leaks, we'll all go down for it."
"Got it." I rose, turned, grabbed the door handle and pulled it open an inch. The air from the overhead vent shot past me on the path of least resistance.
Take one more shot at it, I thought.
Letting the door fall closed, I turned around. "What'd this guy do?"
Frank diverted his focus to his computer monitor and shook his head.
"Come on, Frank. Just between you and me."
A single laugh escaped past his pursed lips. He shuffled his mouse around on a gray square pad, clicking the left and right buttons. "You know people end up on these lists at times because of conversations that go too far. If I say anything more, it'll be someone like Brett Taylor paying a visit to both of us."
"Fair enough." I turned my back to him.
I didn't look back. "Yeah?"
"Close this one out, and maybe I'll tell you everything over a pitcher or three. In the meantime, happy New Year."
LOCATED ON 4TH Street between 6th and 7th Avenue, the five-story brownstone loomed like weathered ruins amid the surrounding rehabbed and renovated buildings. The owner had received multiple unsolicited offers to purchase for reasonable sums, but he had refused to sell. The building held too much value for him. Presumably Brett Taylor didn't care that the building was in shambles, or that nine of the ten apartments inside matched the rough exterior. I guess everything he needed existed in that tenth pristine apartment.
Between Frank and one of my sources, I had a five-year history on the building as well as the day-to-day nuances of life within its walls.
When the block showed no human activity, I crossed the street and forced my way inside the brownstone. A combination of human waste, sweat, mildew, and cigarette smoke pelted me, and I nearly gagged at the overwhelming stench. After a few moments I adjusted, and then continued past the entrance hall, which branched in two, one passage leading east and the other west.
The first floor had four apartments. From the looks of things, transients and homeless occupied these units when Taylor wasn't there. Same with the two units on the second floor. The fourth and fifth floors contained a single residence each. For whatever reason, Taylor had chosen to forgo the supposed prestige of a penthouse, and lived in an apartment on the third floor.
I started my search in the west hall. My primary concern was security equipment - anything that would give our position away or record our actions when Bear and I returned to complete the job. I saw no cameras on the outside, and none at the entrance. Presumably, Taylor had some sort of a monitoring system in place. Men in his position had to.
The apartments on the first floor had all been occupied recently, although they were empty at the moment. Leftover cellophane wrappers, soda cans, and liquor bottles were strewn about. Body odor lingered, a stench nearly as foul as that at the main entrance.
At the end of the east hall was a door that opened up to stairs leading to the basement. I followed them down, sticking to the edges to minimize squeaking. The room below the building was wide open from foundation wall to foundation wall, aside from evenly spaced support columns that resembled an old man's bowed legs. An old furnace sat dormant in the middle of the rear wall, the bricks surrounding it several shades darker than the rest. The floor was covered in an inch of soot and dust. Pristine. No footprints. Clearly no one ventured into the brownstone's basement these days. I walked along the perimeter of the room and remained on the lookout for electrical wires and communication lines. Only thing I found was brick and mortar and dust.
Satisfied that the basement was just that, I hiked back up the stairs, bypassing the first floor landing, and made my way through the building's second level.
Again, I found the rooms looking recently occupied, but currently empty. Perhaps Taylor had a system of letting the homeless that frequented his building know when he'd return. Use my place, but don't dare be there when I get back. Perhaps his way of repenting for the sins he committed for our government.
I made the journey from the second floor to the third with more trepidation. So far, there were no signs of security. That had to change. Still, I didn't find anything.
Of the two units on the third floor, one was used by Taylor.
I searched the unoccupied third floor apartment first. Unlike the units of the first two levels, no one had been inside this space for quite some time. Maybe not since the last tenant, who might even have died in the room. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling and draped the walls. Roaches scattered as light penetrated the space for the first time in perhaps years. I couldn't see them, but their thin legs scratched the hardwood floor with a sound like someone clawing their way out of a wooden box.
The place was fully furnished. The furnishings had to be sixty or seventy years old, with a few turn-of-the-century pieces. The kind of stuff my mother had, but never let me or my brother or my sister sit on. And don't let your friends near it, Jack! Antique picture frames housed yellowing photographs. A young woman. A young man. A young couple, together. Her in her wedding dress, him in his suit. Her perched on his lap. A baby. A child. A teenager. The sequence was repeated at the other end in reverse. One boy, one girl. One happy couple aging decades in a series of photographs perched on the mantle. A casket cross etched with the name "Robert." He died first. She remained in the apartment, loyal to him, waiting to return to him, until her final day passed.
I returned to the hallway. Examined the area surrounding the front door of Taylor's apartment. Again, I found nothing. He'd concealed his security and monitoring devices well. When Bear and I returned, we'd have to bring equipment to aid in our search, and disrupt any communications equipment he had on site.
The search concluded with a quick tour of the fourth and fifth floors. These were big hollow spaces void of furnishings. After passing through the fourth floor, I expected the top level to be full of computers or weapons or an army, even. None of that. And no signs anyone had been up there in some time. A fine layer of dust coated the hardwood floors, and cobwebs lined the walls, though not to the extent of the third floor apartment. Perhaps my intel was wrong. Maybe these spaces were used regularly. That, or someone must regularly be cleaning the space on the upper levels.
The narrow hallway on the top floor had roof access. An old rusted ladder mounted to the rear wall. I climbed it and popped the hatch to the roof. Strong gusts of wind passed by. A steady stream pelted down on me. The cold wormed its way into my clothing. I performed a quick recon of the roof's perimeter and determined there was no way off unless one was willing to risk a drop of seventy feet or so to the concrete below by attempting a ten-foot jump to the next building.
I double-checked every room on the way down. All except Taylor's. I wasn't looking for signs of life. Instead, I wanted to root out any possible escape routes. Iron bars on the upper level windows made any attempt from there impossible. The fire escapes on the second and third floors had been removed. Heavy bolts stuck out of the wall as a reminder they had once been attached. An alley around the length and width of the Brownstone, but there was no outlet. It formed a U that originated and terminated on 4th Street.
So that left one way in and out of the building: the front door. And once we saw Brett Taylor enter through it, that spelled game over.
I SAT AT a wrought-iron bistro table, across from Bear, on the frigid and desolate terrace of a small Brooklyn café, a block east of the brownstone and two blocks west of Prospect Park. Dead leaves skated along the herringbone brick pavers, the first traffic we'd seen pass by.
Gray clouds raced overhead. Along with them came the promise of a winter storm. The temperature had already dropped ten degrees since the high of thirty-one at 8:00 that morning. Wouldn't be long until the storm hit. I had to wonder if Bear and I would manage to get out of the city today.
I pinched the handle of a mug that had once been hot between my thumb and forefinger. The dark roast emitted a bitter odor. Inches from my mouth, the rising steam mingled with my chilled breath. A smoky veil lifted into the air between Bear and me. I stared through it past the big man and scanned the street and sidewalk that stretched beyond the empty terrace. I took a sip. I'd waited four and a half minutes too long to do so. Might as well have been sucking on unbrewed grounds.
Bear stared at a newspaper pinned to the table by his large hands. His laughter broke the monotony of distant traffic. I glanced down and saw him reading an op-ed piece about our involvement in Iraq.
I decided it was a good time as any to kill a few minutes with mind-numbing conversation, so with the mug covering my mouth, I said, "Good and evil."
Bear's forehead wrinkled as he shifted his gaze from the paper to me without moving his head. "What about it?"
"That's the wrong question."
"Then what's the right question?"
"What's the difference?"
Bear shrugged, said nothing, redirected his focus to the op-ed piece.
"The difference," I said, "is that both halves sit on a line so thin I don't believe it exists."
Without looking up, Bear offered a half-hearted chuckle as he hiked his thumb over his shoulder toward the cop who was leaning against a light post on the opposite side of the intersection. The officer wore a ski mask with a full oval cutout for his face. This resulted in the man's nose and cheeks turning bright red. The cop brought his hands to his face, lifted the elastic bands on his gloves, and blew into them. I doubted the effect would last long.
"Why don't you go tell Johnny Law over there about your theory?" Bear said.
I wasn't sure how he'd spotted the cop; the man had arrived after we sat down. I resisted the urge to check the glass behind me.
"He'd agree with me," I said. "Think about everything he's seen working in Brooklyn. It ain't Iraq, but it sure as hell isn't a theme park either."
"Nonsense." Bear leaned forward and dropped a thick forearm on the table. Its legs creaked as my side rose up an inch or two. "Just like you learned in Sunday school as a kid, there's right and wrong and laws and consequences that most people abide by. You can say they do it blindly, or willingly, or unwillingly but out of fear of retribution. Doesn't matter. Without those laws, chaos would ensue." He tapped on the table with two fingers and added, "To me, that's a pretty thick line."
"Yet at times, the two of us are given a pass to break those laws if it's good for the government and the welfare of those law-abiding citizens who went to Sunday school and do everything they're told. Besides, I didn't say 'right and wrong.' I said 'good and evil.' The difference between them might as well be as wide as the Grand Canyon - at that spot a half-inch or less before the two sides finally meet. According to some, and I'm talking people high up the black ops food chain, if we take out a target on a hit they sanctioned, then we did something right. Makes us good guys for doing our job. But there are others, most likely our targets' loved ones, and presumably our targets, who'd say we are the face of evil in its purest form."
"Face of evil." Bear waved me off. "You know who that is."
"And yet, if you didn't know what they'd done, you wouldn't be able to tell them apart from anyone else."
"A thin line, eh?"
"So thin your vision would blur trying to focus on it."
Bear worked his hands against each other. "Hurry up with that coffee, Jack. I don't feel like sitting out here anymore."
"Got somewhere you have to be?"
"We both do. Or did you forget that, while you were philosophizing over your now-chilled java?"
I tilted the mug to my mouth and drained the remainder, now cooled to a temperature just above freezing.
"This stuff hasn't changed in thousands of years, Bear. My stance in 250 B.C. would be no different than it is now in 2007."
Bear stared at me without speaking for a few moments, then turned away, stared down the street toward the brownstone.
I said, "Does this make you uncomfortable?"
The big man shrugged and said nothing.
"You brought me into this line of work. Remember?"
Slowly, Bear swung his head around and nodded. "Yeah, I remember, Jack. And, like I've said a hundred times, I don't like thinking about what we do outside of the times we're actually doing it. Right up till that moment, it's like a game to me. And then I can block out those few minutes where we neutralize our targets. In the end, it's just a way to make a living. Hell, you wanna talk about a line? I'm straddling that line every day. Besides, you know the stories on most of the dudes we take out. It ain't like they're heroes or Roy Rogers wannabees. These bastards deserve what they get. Every last one of them."
I'd managed to get him worked up. But I couldn't relish the moment for too long. The cop across the street was talking into his shoulder-mounted radio. Dark sunglasses now hid his eyes, and he had repositioned himself to face us.
I brought the empty mug up and hid my lips with it. "Don't look, but that cop seems awfully interested in us. You didn't do anything to get your ugly mug painted on a wanted sign, did you?"
Bear looked past me - at the window, I presumed. He pushed back from the table and rose. "If I did, then so did you. Just go easy if he tries, man. We'll be out in an hour."
"And we'll lose our guy. Think about the sacrifice you've made for this. Been up for over twenty-four hours. Haven't showered. Changed your clothes. I've been trying to figure out if that's the sewer or you I've been smelling."
"Not now, Jack."
"We get hauled in, and the clock on Taylor resets to zero. For us, at least. We'll be off the job and out of the time we spent on this."
Bear said, "I'll go over the fence. You go through the cafe, then head down to the park, come back down 5th. You know where to meet from there."
I nodded, rose, dropped a twenty on the table, and set the mug on top to keep the bill from blowing away in the gusts. By the time I looked up, Bear had cleared the fence and was on his way toward the brownstone. I tossed a quick glance at the cop, who remained in the same place, but was obviously watching me as I turned and pushed past the door leading inside the café.
A blonde-haired woman in her early twenties looked up from her crossword puzzle as I entered. She started to get up. I gestured for her to remain seated.
"There's a cop out there," I said. "What's he doing?"
Again, she leaned forward to stand.
"Just turn your head toward the door and cough," I said.
She lowered her eyebrows and then did as instructed. Looking back toward me, she said, "He's bouncing from one foot to the other."
"On the sidewalk."
"This side of the street, or the other?"
"Thanks." I scanned the small dining room. "Got a back way out of here?"
"Are you in trouble?"
"Would it make a difference if I were?"
She smiled and tilted her head to the side. Blonde ringlets with pink highlights splayed over her right shoulder. She reached up and twirled a tendril. "Maybe."
I glanced at the colored tattoos that lined the exposed skin of her forearms and neck. She'd be more inclined to help me, I figured, if the cop wanted something with me.
"You got a back door or not?"
She gestured with her head toward the counter. "That door leads to the storeroom. Just head to the back and through the emergency door. Don't worry, it won't trigger the alarm. Been dead as long as I've worked here. You'll end up in an alley that runs between 4th and 5th. It meets up with the cross streets."
I nodded, turned and headed for the storeroom.
"Hey," she called out.
I glanced back. "Yeah?"
"What'd you do?"
"If I told you I killed someone, would you believe me?"
The curious grin on her face spread. "No."
So what's this going to cost?
Amazon: $19.99 + $19.99 + $21.99 = $61.97
Not good enough. So I put it on sale:
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JASON BOURNE, JACK RYAN, JACK REACHER. AND NOW JACK NOBLE...
I enjoy the Jack Noble character as much as Mitch Rapp, Scott Horvath, or Jack Ryan.
"L.T. Ryan’s character of Jack Noble compares to Lee Child’s Jack Reacher, Kyle Mills’ Vince Flynn character Mitch Rapp, and my personal favorite Mark Greaney’s Gray Man series. Don’t wait. . . start this series now!"- Drema Malloy (Amazon)
"Regarding the character himself, Jack Noble, it is evident early on that he has several James Bond-ish traits. Unafraid for the most part, and with a sense of humor, he charges ahead in the plot with a zeal for doing "what is right".I'm hooked, and will read all the rest of the series."- SilverGhost (Amazon)
Here's what you're getting:
* Noble Beginnings (Jack Noble Book 1), regular price $19.99
* A Deadly Distance (Jack Noble Book 2), regular price $19.99
* Thin Line (Jack Noble Book 3), regular price $21.99
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Hi, I'm Lee, also known as L.T. Ryan. Nearly twenty years ago while driving through Greenbank, West Virginia -- an area where no cellular signal existed because of a radio observatory -- I had an idea about a secret government training facility that created soldiers of the future. Over time, this idea morphed into Jack Noble. Ten years ago, I first put pen to paper, or, rather, fingers to keyboard, and brought this character to life. I never could have imagined what would come next...
Thirteen books, a prequel, five spinoffs, and more on the way. Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and Amazon bestselling author status. And new series launched...so many new series.
It never would have happened without the readers. People like you, who took a chance on an unknown author and character who just happens to latch onto you and never lets you go.
Join me on this journey. Take a chance on Jack Noble.
Get your copy of The Jack Noble Series: Books One to Three Special Box Set today: