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First pages

Prologue

Two weeks before present

Every day, desperate people pushed through the wide glass doors of 111 North Hill Street, hoping the justice delivered within these hallowed walls would solve their problems. No matter his mood, Alfred Zematis offered a warm smile, sometimes listening to their sad tales, other times simply nodding encouragement. He took pride in the sparkling tile floors, the immaculate sinks in the bathrooms and the trash bins he never allowed to overflow. This grand old courthouse had been his home for thirty years.

Musai Alland changed that.

Today Alfred swished his broom back and forth in practiced steady sweeps, knowing this would be his last time. He mopped his brow with a faded kerchief. The air conditioner was broken—again. By the time it was hot enough his bosses asked him to bring up the big box fans stored in the basement, he would be under arrest. He winced. Every breath hurt his chest. It could be the illness. Or nerves. Probably nerves, but it made no difference anymore.

He checked his battered Timex. One fifty. Time crawled when a man outlived his children. God never intended that.

He peered into Room 22. The man who wasn’t Gegham Keregosian stood in the back, head down, lips moving. His cocoa-colored skin, as smooth and unlined as a teenager, was dry in spite of the ninety-degree building. The low rumble of voices and the crinkle of food wrappers muffled his words, but he must have felt Alfred’s presence. He stared at the janitor with those empty eyes before continuing his quiet prayers.

Alfred turned away. It was not yet time.

Alfred didn’t mean to learn Gegham Keregosian’s real name. A week ago, Alfred had been asked to remove black drag marks from the floor. He blocked the hallway with cones, excited about the prospect of working without interruptions, doing the job he was hired to do and doing it well. Around the corner, out of sight, a voice he recognized as Keregosian whispered to someone Alfred couldn’t see. The unknown man called Keregosian ‘Salah’. There was a crack followed by a hissed warning from Keregosian: ‘Do not ever use my real name’. Alfred fumbled headphones over his ears and hummed loudly to his silent music as the two men came into view. The only noise as they passed was Alfred’s wet rag and Keregosian’s hollow footsteps.

Alfred had no idea how to end another man’s life, but a father must avenge his daughter’s death. In exchange for Alfred’s now meaningless savings, Keregosian would kill Musai Alland and allow him—Alfred—to claim responsibility. Alfred felt no regret. God understood why he must break the sacred Commandment.

One fifty-two.

In the reflection off the mirrored elevator doors, Alfred saw himself as the TV cameras would. A clean, pressed uniform bagged on an emaciated frame. Shoes, old and cracked, shone with polish. His sparse grey hair lay neatly against his freckled skull. A thin gold band, scarred from years of labor, shimmered on his parchment skin, the sole reminder of the stunning exotic dancer who stole his heart, leaving him with a child he named Angel who thought her daddy could do no wrong.

He gave Angel’s cat away this morning. She had found it in the alley, left eye blind and bloody with a deep laceration from his stomach through his haunch. She nursed it back to health and loved it so completely, Alfred worried what would happen to his Angel if the animal ever disappeared.

He should have worried about the reverse.

One fifty-five. The jury’s decision had been expected twenty-five minutes ago. Why so late? They must see the defendant was guilty.

Two o’clock. The courtroom phone trilled and the guard pounded the gavel.

All rise…

****

Alfred Zematis’ personnel file called him dependable, friendly, and a hard worker. He had taken only three sick days in thirty years. The first was for the birth of his daughter, Angel. Alfred had proudly shown off pictures of a pink bundle of squirming limbs and satin skin. His finger, thick as a sausage, nail grimy with embedded dirt, hovered over her cherub cheeks as he promised: No evil will touch you, whatever it costs.

His next sick day came when a neighbor left an urgent message with Alfred’s supervisor. One-year-old Angel had been crying all morning. Alfred‘s boss drove him home where they found a farewell note from Alfred’s wife pinned to Angel’s yellow-and-white patchwork blanket. He hugged the infant, changed her diapers, and assured her nothing in God’s glorious world could hurt them. From then on, until the County’s onsite daycare center had room, he mopped floors, swapped out light bulbs, and cleaned bathrooms with Angel tied to his chest in a homemade sling, Alfred’s heart beating against hers.

Alfred took his third and final sick day when seventeen-year-old Angel died. She had been so excited about the new job. The money meant Dosuna, her pet name for him, could stop working overtime. She gave him a web address, a password, and kissed him for the last time.

When his shift ended, he went to the library and logged into the website his daughter had given him. It was a webcam in a well-lit room with no furniture or windows or decorations of any kind. A striking, dark-skinned male introduced himself as Musai Alland. He wore conservative pleated slacks, a dark turtleneck and a heavy gold chain around a muscular neck. When the camera panned out, Alfred could see that he stood by a rugged trestle table holding what Alland called an avatar—a caricature—of a naked girl, five wide leather straps securing her limbs, trunk, and head. Blood oozed from hundreds of cuts in her youthful skin and the grisly remains of nail beds where fingernails should have been.

Alland assured the audience the pathetic creature was fictitious—her pain the result of high-tech wizardry. As he tortured the girl, he asked if viewers felt contempt for his treachery or pity for her misery.

Alfred felt shame that mankind considered this being with her cracked voice, tangled filthy hair, and wild eyes entertainment. She squirmed and pleaded while the man named Musai Alland brushed a soothing hand over her frightened face. Alland leaned forward to inhale her fear with a narrow, aquiline nose and then watched her wretchedness with wide-set, soulless eyes. He selected a squat cylinder from a shelf under the table, like the mace canisters people carry for protection. He smiled as he showed it to the creature. She pulled back, feral eyes wide, but the heavy straps held her firmly. She begged for mercy until her sobs became hysterical hiccups, and then sprayed her mouth. She howled in pain, writhing from the chemicals. He squirted her pixie ears, button nose, terrified eyes, and vagina. Primal screams vibrated against the room’s walls, her fingers clawing at the wooden bed, leaving bloody streaks under her hands. Her neck cords bulged and her back arched. As tears sprang to Alfred’s eyes, he wondered how this horror involved his Angel.

Until one word soaked through his senses: “Dosuna!”

Alfred blanched. No one used that name but Angel. He called her his angel and she called him her Archangel, or ‘two A’s—Dosuna. Now he saw it, in the curve of her blood-spattered neck and the swell of her tortured cheek. The crazed eyes—that last week overflowed with the fullness of life—searching for a savior who would never arrive. Through blinding tears, he stabbed at the library’s pay phone, but got only the website’s answer machine. He dialed the police, told them between sobs what he was watching and implored them to hurry. They asked him to bring the website address in and tell his story to the on-duty detective. The operator sounded bored or tired, or both. When Alfred got back to the computer, Alland was handing Angel a jagged piece of wood. She grasped it in shaking hands and slashed her wrists over and over until they were but a gory sludge of tissue. Alfred forced his eyes to remain on his baby, hot tears rolling down his face and chest heaving in agonizing sobs. He could not let his Angel die alone.

When the screen went dark, Alfred called the same policeman and told him Angel was dead.

His next call was to a New York number Angel had given him, a woman with a robot she said could track anything. At least, that was her claim to Angel’s high school tech class. He told the woman about Angel and Alland and asked for help. They talked for ten more minutes, and then Alfred took a taxi to the police station.

The next morning, an email awaited him. He called in sick, shined his dress boots, donned his church clothes, smoothed his hair, and appeared at the office of the District Attorney. The golden letters over the door said he sheltered the innocent. The janitor rocked side to side as he talked, head bowed, coarse hands clutching his work cap, trying to describe what he saw and why he knew it was murder. The Great Man splayed tapered fingers across the cluttered desktop, intelligent eyes taking in Alfred’s ragged words before responding.

“One of our detectives visited Musai Alland early this morning. He admitted to making the tape, but said he used a simulacrum, not a real person. He says he desires to attract Hollywood’s attention, not the police.”

Alfred brushed a tear from his cheek. He didn’t know what a ‘sim-yoo-lay-crum’ was. He dropped out of high school when his mother died and worked sixty hours a week to raise five siblings. He opened his mouth, but found his throat too tight to speak.

The District Attorney softened his voice. “Torturing a simulated human is not illegal. We have no crime scene or body. Without new evidence, we have no case.” He waited, as though hoping Alfred could offer more.

With a shaking hand, Alfred nudged the email he’d received this morning across the District Attorney’s desk. “This is from an expert at Columbia University. She says these numbers give you the address of the video. They also prove the—what did you call it? Simulation?—was my daughter. She asked to remain anonymous.”

The man thanked him and Alfred left. The next day, Musai Alland was arrested.

****

When strangers passed Salah Mahmud Al-Zahrawi, aka Gegham Keregosian, in the Courthouse, they saw an attractive well-dressed man with dark foreign looks who could be Italian or Middle Eastern, maybe Spanish. He always adopted the slightly bemused expression and humble visage of an immigrant eagerly exploring the ways of his new country. They knew nothing of his mission to avenge the deaths of all Muslims killed by the infidel in the fight for Allah.

Today would bring him one step closer to his goal.

As he traversed the wide Courthouse hall with its faded tile floor and barren smudged walls, he prayed:

“I desire nothing but reform, and with none but Allah is my direction to the right and successful path. On him do I rely and to him do I turn.”

Despite performing daily sacred ablutions, Al-Zahrawi had not felt clean since arriving in the unholy city of Los Angeles. The scent of animals slaughtered in names other than Allah, the noxious aroma of cologne blaring carnal pursuits, and the stench of their sweat leeched into Al-Zahrawi’s being until he feared it would destroy him.

SubhanAllah.

He shoehorned his slim form into a narrow spot along the back wall of Room 22. All around him, the profligate sinners whispered among themselves. They insulted Allah, the women side-by-side with their consorts as though equals and the men obedient to their lust. None in this unholy land understood duty. The desire to rid the world of these heathens grew like a desert flower under spring rain.

But they were not who Allah instructed he kill today.

“All rise…”

An hour later, the media reported, “In a surprise verdict, Musai Alland was found innocent. Despite electronic footprints chased by Columbia grad student, Kalian Delamagente, that led to blood and DNA evidence, the jury agreed with the defense that the video simulated a human...

****

Al-Zahrawi approached Alfred Zematis, filled with excitement at the part the old janitor would play in bringing peace to this servant of Allah. Soon, the man would be reunited with his daughter and his God.

“Do not despair, my friend. I bring good news,” and Al-Zahrawi led Alfred into the stairwell.

Alfred shook with anger. “He was supposed to be thrown in prison where you could kill him. Now what will we do?” Alfred’s voice cracked as the heavy metal door slammed behind him.

“That is no longer your concern, Alfred. JazakAllah. May Allah reward you.”

Alfred did not resist when Al-Zahrawi wrenched his neck until there was a satisfying snap and then tossed the carcass over the railing. It bounced once off the wall before thunking to the ground below. Pulling a piece of paper, a heavy hammer, and a four-inch spike from his pocket, Al-Zahrawi pounded a note into the dead man’s sunken chest. The police would not identify its importance, but by the next dead civilian, and the next after that, they would remember.

He paused before leaving. The old man was at peace for the first time since they had met.

…they who are slain (in Allah’s way) live, finding their sustenance in the Presence of their Lord. They rejoice in the Bounty provided by Allah.

Al-Zahrawi dove into the rush of pedestrians. The key to his jihad’s success now had a name.

Kalian Delamagente.

***

Three days ago

Ten hours and thirty-seven more minutes and the crew of the USS Hampton SSN 767 would be home. Seasoned submariners, the six-month covert intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance tour down the eastern seaboard of South America had gone flawlessly and silently. The Atlantic is a large ocean and the Los Angeles-class sub’s noise footprint small. Once the boat cleared Cuba, the crew would relax.

The Captain sipped the morning’s fourth cup of burned coffee when the hair on the back of his neck prickled. He glanced around, trying to identify what bothered him.

“Captain,” the Watchstander’s gaze bobbed from the Executive Officer to his watchstation. “Navigation is non-responsive.” Confusion tinged his words.

That was it. A change in the deck’s subtle rumble. Before the Captain could react to the impossibility that guidance controls had crashed, every monitor in the sub’s nerve center shut down.

He hadn’t seen this in twenty years of driving subs. All personnel made a hole as he rushed toward the Control Center, shadowed by the XO.

“Sonar readings?” The Captain called to Sonarman Second Class Andy Rikes in the compartment just aft of Control, barely larger than a broom closet but elbow-to-elbow with operators, fingers flying across keyboards and eyes locked onto screens that blinked a dull grey.

Rikes answered, “Negative, Sir. The hydrophones are working, but aren’t sending raw data, like someone pulled the plug and flushed everything out to sea. Trying to fix it.” His voice was hopeful.

If the screen had worked, Sonarman Rikes would have seen the ping, a final gasp before everything electrical collapsed.

The COB—Chief of Boat—interrupted, “Captain. Reactor Scram!” The sub’s nuclear power had evaporated. “Nuclear technicians isolating the problem. Battery back-up is being attempted.”

“Shift propulsion from main engines to EPM,” an auxiliary electric motor that could turn the propeller.

“Negative, Captain. Non-responsive.” Fear leaked from his voice.

The depth meter no longer worked, but the XO guessed that the sub was angled downward at 10 degrees

“Blow main ballast tanks!”

“No response, Captain.”

“How deep is the ocean floor in this sector of the Atlantic?”

The Sonarman answered, “It varies between 1,000 and 16,000”

16,000 feet was well below the sub’s crush depth.

“There are seamounts and ridges spread throughout. We could get lucky and land on one. Or not.”

“Inform US Strategic Command of our situation.”

“Sir, comms are down.”

“Release the message buoy,” though all that told the world was they were in trouble. It could quickly drift miles from their position.

The Captain continued, voice calm, face showing none of the worry that filled his thoughts, “I want all department heads and Chief Petty Officers in front of me in five minutes. I want the status on every system they own and operate. Wake up whoever you need to.” He had a bad feeling about this.

 

“Gentlemen, solutions.” The Captain looked first at XO, then COB and finally NAV, the Navigation Officer who turned to the senior chief of navigation.

“It’s like an electromagnetic pulse hit us, which can’t happen underwater…” then he shrugged as though to say, I have no idea, Sir.

They practiced drills for every sort of emergency, but not this one. No one considered a complete electrical shutdown possible.

“We’re checking everything, but nothing is wrong. It just won’t work.”

“Where’s CHENG?” The Chief of Engineering.

“Troubleshooting, Sir.” COB’s voice was efficient, but tense.

The Captain didn’t wait. “Condition Alpha. Full quiet—voices whispers, all silent, no movement not critical. Defcon 2,” the second-highest peacetime alert level.

No one knew who their enemy was or why they were under attack, but they had one and they were.

“XO, get lanterns up here.”

 

Within an hour, the massive warship had settled to the ocean floor like the carcass of a dead whale. It teetered atop an ocean ridge, listing starboard against a jagged seamount, and the gentle push of an underwater current from a cliff that plunged into a murky darkness. Every watertight door was closed. As per protocol, the oxygen level was reduced to suppress a fire hazard. Without climate controls, the interior had already reached 60 degrees. It would continue dipping as it strove to match the bone-chilling surrounding water temperature. Hypothermia would soon be a problem. For now, though, they were alive.

The hull groaned as though twisted by a giant squid.

The Captain peered into the gloomy waters that surrounded the sub. “Thoughts, XO?”

“We’re stable for the moment, barring a strong underwater current.”

Based on the creaking protests from the hull, they were at or beyond crush depth. Any deeper, the outside pressure would snap the HY-80 outer hull and sea water would roar into the living compartments. Everyone would be dead in seconds, either drowned or impaled on the ragged remains of the sub by a force in excess of a Category Five hurricane.

“We’re beyond the depth of the Steinke Hoods,” escape equipment that included full body suits, thermal protection, and a life raft. Budget cuts had eliminated funding for more advanced solutions.

XO pointed toward a darker expanse of black just yards from the sub. “No telling how deep that crevice is.”

“Gather the crew in the Forward compartment. Seal all other compartments. Ration water. Start O2 candles when levels reach 50% normal. Did the message buoy launch?”

“Yes, sir.”

That was a relief. The Deep Submergence Rescue Vehicle (DSRV) deployed in emergencies from shore couldn’t assist if it didn’t know they needed help.

Chapter 1

36 hours ago

The sturdy navy blue Land Rover caught his attention, old but well-maintained with clean windows and enough tread on the tires to be serviceable in this remote African village. The tall slender Kenyan driver talked with friends while awaiting a customer, bare feet layered with dust, clothing worn but washed, a charismatic smile stretched from ear to ear to inspire trust in visitors looking for a ride. His unlined face told the man with the briefcase he was young enough to test fate. The wide ragged scar covering his left cheek said he was not afraid to take chances.

Still, when the man with the briefcase told him where he wished to go, the Kenyan refused. No one will go to there, he insisted with a toothy grin, waving his arm to include the four other men offering their services in the dusty roadside lot, because no one returns. Of course he needed the money—this generous amount will pay my bills for a month but who will support my family when I am dead?

He shook his head, laughing, and turned away.

Until his phone rang.

Thirty seconds later, sweat dimpling his blue-black forehead and long slender fingers knotted into panicked fists, the Kenyan driver and the man with the briefcase departed.

The directions were simple: Proceed west-northwest keeping Mt. Kilimanjaro in his rear view mirror, Lake Natron to his right and Ol Doinyo Lengai to his left. When he passed the two-trunked baobab, he would be close.

Do that or never see his wife and five children again.

 

Dense dust choked the battered car as it labored across the burned scrubland. The blistering midday sun moved a hand at a time through the cloudless sky, sucking hidden moisture from the parched land. The driver said nothing. The only sounds were the gravelly soil bouncing up from below rattling around in the undercarriage and the Kenyan’s occasional sigh.

The man with the briefcase coughed again. The windows would not close and dust coated his throat and lips, even his teeth. The water bottle lay abandoned at his feet, emptied an hour ago of the last drops. He stared out at the flat, dry, and limitless terrain. There were no landmarks or relief of any kind, save the bleached bones of animals who had succumbed to the savage habitat. Not even the Bedouin tribes, traveling south to Arusha or north toward the shores of Lake Victoria, would risk this passage. If the vehicle broke down, both men would die from exposure.

Still, the man with the briefcase felt no fear. He brought news to Salah Mahmud Al-Zahrawi, number three man to the infamous Osama bin Laden’s successor.

Just as the passenger decided the driver was lost, a broken-down hovel appeared, fortified by two hulking grey-black figures pointing AK-47s at the dusty vehicle. The driver waved timidly to a rough, muscular thug who scowled and motioned them forward.

The car rolled to a stop a meter from the building. The passenger unfolded himself from the back seat, stretching his legs, seeing nothing but emptiness as far as the eye could see. He ran a hand down his wiry black beard and ducked through the muddy cloth flap that served as a door. The driver remained outside. He greeted the guards as Cousins, passed around his khat, then chewed slowly, eyes moving over the landscape, alert and frightened.

Inside, cross-legged on a pillow, sat a handsome man dressed in a pure white dishdasha. His eyes were clear and intelligent, skin smooth for one raised in the desert wind. Though a small man, his presence filled the room. A tray of fruit, a teapot, and one cup were arranged carefully at his left elbow. The visitor bowed and sat across from his host on a threadbare but handwoven carpet.

“You bring good news.” Salah Mahmud al-Zahrawi’s voice was cultured, with a quiet intensity. His smile carried neither welcome nor warmth. There was but one reason the man with the briefcase would arrive in person.

The guest dipped his head in obeisance. “I am pleased to see you, Salah,” he offered with an air of suppressed energy. “The virus made contact.”

“Which means what?”

“The ping activates as the last action before communications terminate. At this point, we can assume all electrical systems are down.”

“Where is the submarine?” Al-Zahrawi asked, voice softer, tone somewhere between hope and disbelief.

“Midway between Cuba and Florida. In three days, the crew will suffocate from lack of oxygen. In four, the virus will restart the submarine’s navigation and propulsion and it will sail to Cuba. An Akula-class Russian sub will pick it up forty miles offshore and guide it to port. ”

“What if the Americans find it?”

“Yes, they might, but we do not think they will.” He spread his hands palms up. “The Atlantic is vast. The submarine—it is as a grain of sand in the desert. We will find it only because it comes to us.” He cocked his head. “Of course, the ocean there, it has depths in excess of 10,000 feet. If the submarine finds those, even we will not be able to retrieve it.”

“But we know the virus works.”

 

Al-Zahrawi felt excitement tingle through his shoulders and down his fingers. This success moved him that much closer to his final goal: Incapacitate the fourteen American Trident subs that roamed the world’s oceans. The destructive force carried by just one exceeded five thousand Hiroshimas. He would sink them or sell them.

Al-Zahrawi blinked in his excitement. How much would America’s enemies pay to rid themselves of these weapons? The money would fund the Holy jihad for decades to come.

Chapter 2

Present day, Friday

Fatigue smothered Bobby James like his last girlfriend’s endless, meaningless chatter. His flight had been delayed at both ends, the onboard meal stale, and the taxi driver rude. He closed his apartment’s solid core steel-reinforced three-hour fire-resistant door and did a one-eighty. The thin film of cornmeal just inside the threshold was undisturbed and the area rug remained forty-five degrees to the coffee table, two feet from the wall. Reassured, he dropped his bags and headed to the kitchen for some ice. He needed a drink.

His brain felt limp, like a plant that’s been soaked in saltwater. Crypto-this and cyber-that—none of it made sense, but his FBI bosses assured him this was the future. Cyberspace had become the fourth domain of modern warfare—like land, sea and air—but without geopolitical boundaries. For three days, he gamely tried to understand how to find the enemy using what the instructor termed ‘digital footprints’. These were virtual breadcrumbs that chronologued a persons’ journey. Sometimes, they were easy to follow, especially via social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, and a site James had never heard of called Instagram. Other times, they were less public, but still obvious for those who knew how. With billions of people uploading data from cellphones, computers, and tablets, invisibility was an arcane concept. The instructor demonstrated simple searches of each student accessing only public domain information. One FBI veteran was caught kissing three women not his wife. Another photographed handing an envelope to a known gang leader. In fact, twenty-five of the twenty-six class members ended up stuttering through explanations of why ‘it’s not what it seems’.

“But you, Bobby James, are an enigma. You were a star fullback in high school, in national news forty-seven times by my count, but passed up a scholarship so you could serve your country. According to the local paper, this broke your mother’s heart and inspired your girlfriend to dump you.”

James smiled at the memory—the first time in his life he’d been in control.

The teacher tapped a few keys on his iPad and continued. “You spent three years as an MP, reported to be firm but fair. You retired after your second overseas tour and got a BA in criminal justice while working for the Los Angeles Police Department.”

“OK, I get it—” It was time to short circuit this romp through his personal life, but the teacher barreled on.

“When cameras caught you rescuing a child from kidnappers, tears running down your face, a bloody knife in one hand and her stuffed bear in the other, Hollywood called. Their profile of you read ‘chiseled body, a frisson of danger, and a photogenic presence make Robert ‘Bobby’ James the perfect hard-bitten but damaged detective.’ This earned you,” he paused, eyes widening, “a high five-figure side-income.”

“Nothing says authentic like a camera phone at a crime scene. We done—” but there was no stopping the teacher.

“Until one horrific case where a right-wing militia group kicked a teenage girl to death for sharing food with a stray dog.”

James’ thoughts turned inward. She had bled out before he could save her, sheltering the shaking mongrel in her arms. A week later, James walked out on his Hollywood career and the LAPD, haunted by memories he couldn’t control. Within a month, he had three job offers.

“Six months after joining the FBI, you got your own team.” The teacher’s eyes appraised James. “Your bosses and subordinates alike say you don’t play politics and they would walk through fire with you.”

James glared. “We done? Or is this an intervention?” James struggled to smother what had always been a hair-trigger temper.

The instructor held his hand up. “That’s it. There’s nothing else online.”

Was that a compliment or an insult? James couldn’t have been happier when New York called him home. Sitting there, everyone taking notes on tablets and laptops while he used his trusty pen and notebook, he felt old.

 

He loosened his tie and poured a Black Label neat. Just one. Tomorrow required a clear head and steady hand. An American sub had missed three call-ins.

He sipped his drink and logged into the secure FBI server. As he retrieved updates, he half-listened to his voicemail—one from his mother, two from a neighbor about a lost cat, and then a friendly voice from his past: Bobby. Something you might be able to help with.

Curt Sauvain. They had been partners at LAPD. James yawned. 9:27 in Los Angeles. Curiosity got the better of him.

“Bobby! Glad you’re working late. Something good I hope?”

“According to Churchill.” The British Prime Minister had famously proclaimed that success was going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. “Congratulations by the way, on your promotion.” Last year, Sauvain became LAPD’s Chief of Detectives.

Sauvain chuckled. “Enough about me. You read about the Zematis case?”

“It was all over the news.”

“What the press doesn’t know is the murderer pounded a note into the old man’s chest threatening more deaths if our Trident subs don’t return to base.”

“The fourteen SSBN submarines—”

“—the most powerful offensive weapon platforms on the planet, armed with enough ballistic missiles to destroy our enemies ten times over. Yeah, those Tridents.”

James’ instincts pinged. Zematis’ murder was about two weeks ago. Now the Navy had a missing sub. James had never met a coincidence he trusted.

He said nothing because Sauvain had no need-to-know. His ex-partner continued. “The Navy says docking the Tridents is non-negotiable regardless who might be killed, though they put Kings Bay and Bangor—the two primary home ports—on alert.”

James fidgeted with his glass. “Have there been more deaths?”

“Not yet. I have one loose end I hope you can help with. D’you know a Columbia student named Kalian Delamagente?”

James had dated a few grad students, but not from Columbia. “No. Should I?” He tapped ‘Zematis’ and ‘Delamagente’ into the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services Division Next Gen ID system. It could identify suspects by DNA, fingerprints, palm prints, or at least a dozen other methods and then used a subsystem called ‘Rap Back’ to cross-reference them to crime scenes and suspects. The only connection between these two names was the Zematis case.

Sauvain continued, “Delamagente provided police with the physical address where Angel’s torture/murder occurred and proof the simulacrum was juxtaposed on her body, to make the suffering look fake and real at the same time. Double jeopardy prevents us from retrying Alland, but we could go after who bankrolled his defense.”

A story popped up. “Delamagente will be at a DARPA—Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—competition this weekend in New York City. I’ll see what I can find out.”

James hung up and clicked open his address book. He knew just the guy for the job.

Chapter 3

Saturday

Close to a decade working together and Zeke Rowe had never received three calls in thirty minutes from Bobby James. It was either a concerted effort to say hello or—more likely—he needed help, neither of which Rowe had time for.

Among other things, he had to do something with his front yard. Right now, it was all weeds and brown cracked dirt, but had great potential—according to the real estate agent who’d sold it to him. Throw around grass seed, water it. Soil is perfect. That was just one of a long and growing list of deferred maintenance mentioned in the latest official letter from his homeowner’s group. Yesterday, he promised them he’d fix the sagging, weather-beaten, warped eyesore-pretending-to-be-steps before leaving the country for a three-week archaeologic dig. Today, he had to admit, he needed a Homeowner 101 course.

He’d been sanding for close to three hours, with ample breaks to drink beer, watch a spider spin a web, and review plans for his field study. As sawdust floated through his fingers, a sense of giving new life to damaged wood warming him, he thought back to that Joint Task Force where he and Bobby James met. A Pakistani cell based in France had been selling American weapons out of Los Angeles. He was with Naval Intelligence at the time, sure he knew more than the civilian police and angry with Bobby James for wasting his time. James was in charge because it was LAPD turf. Rowe had been warned to play nice while offering what he could to assist.

He got there early, eager to start, finish, and head home. James arrived late. One look at the man’s chiseled face, bull neck, wide shoulders, and seven percent body fat on a 250 pound six-foot frame was all it took. Rowe knew the type, good looking man’s man with a big personality that covered a paucity of skills. The fact he brought donuts did nothing to assuage Rowe’s simmering anger, though he ate four.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for 4 blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice, columnist for TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing Teachers, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics

Q. Is there a message in your book that you want readers to grasp?
A.
Man's greatest strength has always been his ability to solve problems.
Q. What draws you to this genre?
A.
Thrillers spotlight super-human individuals who are vulnerable and fail--but never quit. Through that, they become unbeatable.
Q. Why do you write?
A.
Through the scenes I create, I think through problems, accomplish the impossible, and face down evil--all from the safety of my computer.

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Mystery, Thriller & Suspense
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A Confederacy of Dunces meets The 19th Wife
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Murder & prophecy revealed on a 1937 newsreel
Halfway to a Vineyard
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