Latest Installment – Prologue through Chapter 5


A Thriller

By Lewis Perdue



Laguna Nigel, California.

Muzzle flashes freeze-framed a midnight killing field.

On a gnarled ribbon of beach wedged between sheer cliffs and chest-high breakers, slugs closed in on a running man.

A hundred feet above, a tuxedo-clad man watched the chase from the Hesse Corporation’s observation deck. He braced himself against the railing, elbows locked, low-light Swarowski binoculars at his his eyes following the drama as it moved toward his left. He focused on the faint glow from the running man’s right hand.

You fool! You of all people should remember that 911 has orders never to send civilian police here.

The chase had begun at the foot of the corporation’s beach access stairway …

Where is the dossier?

… and was about to end.

How did you get into the vault? What did you expect to accomplish?

The running man ran out of beach where the sheer cliffs marched into the Pacific.

Seven long strides into the surf, his face dimly illuminated by the phone screen he held close to his eyes.

Powerful flashlights converged.

He stumbled. Fell. Held the screen above the roiling waves that churned with lead.

Miraculously, the man evaded the deadly metal swarm, regained his balance.

The tuxedoed man lowered the glasses and let them rest against his chest, hung by the leather neck strap. He shook his head at the evening’s events. Never in his tenure as founder and chairman of the Hesse Corporation had such a thing as this happened. Never, in fact, in the think tank’s history.

As a think tank, Hesse was not as well known as the Rand Corporation or Battelle. The Hesse Corporation’s distinguished board of directors liked it that way. The secret studies Hesse created for its government and private-sector patrons were classified at levels higher than any standard the government had ever created.

But never had they ever produced a document as overwhelmingly important as the one that had initiated this night’s violence: The Nassau Directives. Ironically, the directives had been developed  by the hunted man down on the beach. He had single-handedly created a plan to save the republic.

And he would pay for that with his life.

The Nassau Directives: three surprisingly simple proceedings that would drastically alter the face of America and improve its quality of life for generations. The Directives would success where all the hundreds of billions spent by the government on the “war on drugs” had failed.

Everything the U.S. military and law enforcement had thrown at the cartels had done nothing more than chop off a few of the hydra’s heads. Heavily armed Mexican drug gangs had all but taken over the government, assassinating even the highest law-enforcement officials at will. The few honest police chiefs who survived eventually fled to the U.S. and sought asylum. The Mexican drug lords openly recruited members with posters and banners hung over busy streets.

In Colombia, newer, smarter, richer and more dangerous organizations emerged to replace the cartels smashed in Cali and Medellin. They formed alliances with their counterparts in Mexico, Venezuela, Burma, Thailand, Afghanistan and Pakistan, Bulgaria and Turkey. Using the latest in technology, modern business management techniques and readily available armament they formed global organizations capable of subverting and overpowering smaller nation-states. The ability of  powerful, well-funded crime syndicates to co-opt sovereign governments meant that votes in the United Nations were increasingly cast by globalized organized crime bosses.

Desperation had driven the U.S. government into insanely improbable schemes, ridiculous in their conception, suicidal in their incompetent execution. The spectre of failure somehow blessed these global Hail Mary passes a degree of supremely undeserved rationality. The attempts were many,  but few of these delusional anti-narcotics efforts ever leaked into the public’s attention. But when some did come to light — like Operation Fast and Furious — it exposed the extent to which the government had run out of ideas, sanity and patience. Fast and Furious’s covert — and illegal — operation to sell powerful weapons to the Mexican drug cartels in order to track the pipeline was just the faintest tip of a mostly successful cover-up that kept the vast extent of its operations hidden from Congress and the American public.

But Fast and Furious brought reality home to the very highest levels of the American power structure: The war on drugs was lost. Cartel money and its threats of violence had penetrated Congress, the federal agencies and was corrupting law enforcement and American society at every level, just as it had in Mexico and all-too-many other countries.

Only a powerful, innovative, bold plan — The Nassau Directives — could keep America from being one more narco-nation ruled by grotesque violence and fear.

When the third  and final directive had run completely its course, there would be no more market and that meant no more windfall profits for growers, processors, smugglers, money launderers, wholesalers and pushers.

No more drug billions to corrupt governments and finance terrorists.

Maniacal gunfire down on the beach brought the tuxedoed man’s attention back to the violence below. He raised the binoculars. Through the fine, expensive optics, he saw that one of the hunted man’s pants legs had been torn away. Blood flooded into the surf. Still, the man fled desperately.

It would be over in moments, the tuxedoed man thought with satisfaction, the last of his troubles with a brilliant — but ultimately expendable — troublemaker.

Why did you do this?You knew you’d never get out of this alive.

A wedge of pale light broke his concentration. It spilled out on the deck’s marble tiling. The tuxedoed man turned toward the source and spotted a man’s familiar silhouette, lit cigarette in hand making his way toward the guardrail. He stopped next to tuxedoed man and gazed down at the beach.

The director turned, nodded to the man he had taught at Harvard law school – an extraordinary student who had ridden a wave of voter naievity to an unimagined greatness that far exceeded his experience, intelligence or abilities: the President of the United States.

“I heard the gunshots, from my suite,” the President said without alarm or judgment.

Harvard professor, Nobel Peace Prize, leader of the free world and frequent guest at the Hesse Corporation’s palatial guest quarters.

He took a drag on his cigarette. The glow illuminated a tall, lean man with a permanently arrogant expression and a way of always looking down his nose at you even when he was trying to show his toothiest, most winning campaign smile.

The director looked at him. “Couldn’t be helped. He sneaked in somehow. Security called me; I left the celebration, came here, caught him red-handed.”

“Police?” The President asked as he motioned for the binoculars.

The tuxedoed man shook his head. “They know better.”

The President nodded noncommittally. “Actually, I first thought might be someone with an itchy trigger finger on the New Year’s fireworks.” He raised the binoculars to his eyes.

On the beach, flashlights nailed the hunted man. Well-aimed slugs followed, slammed into the man’s back, lifted him off his feet, hammered him facedown on the sand.

The man in the suit lay still.

Lavish red froth bubbled from a grievous wound below the man’s right shoulder. His torso heaved spasmodically. A winded, lung-shot man struggling to pull his last breaths.

The shots stopped. The President scanned the beach and caught sight of the two hunters, sprinting toward their wounded prey. “What’s that in his hand?”

“Apparently a phone.”


“Why do we cling to anything at all as we die?”

“Photo of a beloved?”

“Why wonder?”

Miraculously, the wounded man sprang to his feet then and lunged into the surf. Gunshots quickly picked up his trail, stitched a ragged line of red splotches between his shoulder blades. He shuddered, took a last close look at the phone.

The next shot entered the back of the man’s neck and severed his spinal cord. He pitched forward, arms outstretched to embrace the next life.

The President nodded thoughtfully as he handed the binoculars back to the director.

The sky lit up then. First with a small Roman candle, Then the dull thudding bombardment of the professional performance up in Laguna Beach.

“Happy New Year,” the President said.

The director cast a brief look down at the beach then smiled.

“Yes. Yes it is. Happy New Year to you too.”





Washington, D.C.


The opulent luxury apartments on upper Wisconsin Avenue shrugged off the bitter January wind and swaddled their wealthy occupants in thick, expensive, stylish walls and decorator designs often featured in Architectural digest.

Just before 9 p.m., a Mercedes CL600 approached the garage of one of the better buildings. Vertical steel bars of the entrance gate sliced the light from the car’s highbeams and laid them in fat slabs on the concrete floor beyond.

The Mercedes’ driver retrieved a small electronic transmitter, pushed the button. The gate lifted obediently. The driver parked next to a classic Jaguar XJ12, and opened the door.

A tall muscular man with light brown skin and piercing eyes climbed out of the Mercedes, gracefully closed the door. The alarm chirp echoed off cold concrete. He scanned the garage, noted, the presence of a Mercedes-Benz SLR McLaren with U.S. Senate license plates, then headed for the elevator lobby. He moved with grace, menace and barely restrained menace. One hand slid cautiously inside his tan cashmere coat. Cold gunmetal in the shoulder holster.

A faint smile animated his lips as he and keyed in the combination to open the door. Once inside the elevator, a small round key brought the call button to life,

Four floors up, he stepped out, turned left and made his way six doors down to a man who appeared to be a uniformed butler. The butler was not a butler, but a guard with a .44 magnum holstered under his uniform jacket

“The uniform looks good on you,” the dark man said to the butler who wasn’t a butler. It was as close to humor as the dark man ever got. The man in the butler’s uniform knew this and managed a smile.  Then he let the tall, dark man into the ostentatiously decorated apartment. They walked silently among furnishings that cost more than most Third World families earned in their miserable lifetimes.

In the bedroom, a different story: stark, utilitarian tables and chairs and the unmistakeable odor of men working too long in confined surroundings. Surveillance electronics jammed the space: video monitors, computers, hard-drive arrays, an elaborate control panel. Shirt-sleeved technicians with shoulder holsters and headsets sat before the monitors, acolytes before the digital tabernacle.

They were all the tall, dark man’s man’s comrades, colleagues, brothers in arms fighting a secret war for the survival of America.

Like other tight covert squads around the globe, the men in the room did not formally report to the tall man. But they all knew his reputation and treated him as the most equal among equals. They were the foot soldiers of Talon Gold and he was the web that bound them all to common purpose.

The tall man paused. Turned slowly.

All but one of the monitors in the room displayed images of empty rooms one floor  directly below. That apartment was leased by Raoul Salazar, the number three man at the Colombian embassy.

Neither technician turned as light from the living room played briefly through the room. They focused on the one screen filled with lurid acts that defied imagination. A time stamp showed that the video had been recorded less than two hours before.

The tall dark-skinned man stood behind the men and watched a stage that he had set as the operational head of an unofficial organization of the U.S. government. It had taken months of stealthy maneuvering, but he had leased the units on both sides of Salazar’s apartment and directly above. Then he had packed all of them with the most sophisticated electronic apparatus, capable of picking up the slightest sound and of showing the sharpest images even under lights-out conditions.

The men who monitored and operated the equipment had been assembled from half a dozen federal bureaus: men who had never met each other before this assignment and who would never see each other again once they finished the mission.

The teams rotated every 60 days to keep them from learning too much: about each other, about the operation. But this was an almost unnecessary precaution. Every task force member had been chosen not only for skill, but because they were men who obediently followed the orders that came from the authorities above them. As long as their orders had been issued from the proper sources with the salient codes and command authorizations, the men were utterly reliable to the letter of their instructions.

The tall man watched the monitor, a close-up showing the unruly graying hair, potbelly and puffy face of the senator who belonged to the Mercedes parked in the apartment’s garage. Veins stood out on the man’s nose.

The tall dark man watched the monitor as the image tilted and zoomed. Then it pulled back, bringing the gray-haired senator into view, a naked mass of sagging rolls of fat and pasty skin. The tall dark man frowned, found It hard to believe the man had ever been seriously considered for a presidential nomination. The monitor image pulled back more: a blonde woman, naked from the waist up with large, silicone-enhanced breasts.

“Some dish,” the first technician said.

The tall man glared.“Okay, we got an ID,” he said. “Back to a medium shot.”

The woman knelt before the senator. The time stamp numbers passed on the screen as she worked on the senator’s erection.

Finally, the senator beckoned for her stand. He knelt before her, unzipped her skin-tight jeans, pulled her panties down to reveal a long healthy penis and two well-formed testicles. The penis grew erect as the men watched silently.

The senator proceeded to fellate the transvestite.

“You’re sure you got it all?” The tall man asked the man in the butler’s uniform.

“Everything,” the butler replied. “Every last word. Before the she-male arrives, Salazar and the senator sit there for a full two hours. They eat. They talk. The senator tells Salazar that he doesn’t have to worry … that Congress’ll talk big about drug enforcement and border control then never appropriate enough money for anything.

“Then, the senator leans over and hands him the file.

“You get a close up?”

The butler smiled. “Got the security classification stamp, the DOD seal and even the document number. Then when they’re finished with their meal, Salazar tells the senator, ‘You’ve been very kind to us. I have a bit of dessert for you.’ Then he trots in the TV and that brings you up to now,” he nodded toward the bedroom door.

The room fell deadly silent.

“What if … ” one technician broke the silence. “What happens if he starts voting against Salazar’s cartel? I mean … after he sees the video? They — ”

The lethal implications of the video weighed heavy on each man present.

The tall man took a deep breath and exhaled audibly.

“He will have a choice,” the tall man said. “Just as he has always had choices. Just as we all have choices.”

My God, the tall man thought to himself. What kind of world was it when you had to become a pornographer and blackmailer to see justice done?

“Never forget: regardless of what happens … what you might read in the paper, his own pesonal choices turned the senator into an accomplice of a deadly cartel. Your work here will only confront him with doing something he has never done before.”

The men loooked at him expectantly.

“The senator will be challenged to do the right thing.”

Then he left. Feeling dirty.





Easton, Maryland


The body was missing.

And the eyes.

Impaled on the fence post by the driveway, the severed head gazed vaguely toward a struggling Eastern Shore dawn all sooty with gloom.

The gloom swept through the tall dark man’s heart as he sat quietly in the front passenger seat of the tan-colored government sedan. And took in yet one more of these.

Who are you?

Octavio Cruz wondered.

How do you know what strikes so deeply in my heart?

Cruz paid no attention to the sedan’s driver who leaned out the door and retched onto the frozen tarmacadam of the neatly edged driveway. Even a decade of extreme duty in Middle Eastern wars did not innur the driver against a horror that would only grow worse as they stepped on to the property.

Already in the driveway in front of them was a panel van with a rack of emergency lights on top and ambulance markings. Two men waited in the front.

Behind Cruz, sat a woman.

She was in her mid-30s, fitly taut in a curvey sort of way with auburn hair and intelligent green eyes that harvested every last bit of information from the world around her. She wore jeans, a down vest over a plaid wool shirt and a Smith & Wesson M&P .45 ACP on her hip.

The woman ran a nameless and highly classified program concealed within the Justice Department’s Witness Protection Program. Her energy usually intimidated her enemies and inspired her staff and friends. But on this day she sat inert, emotionless, gazing through the dim morning light at her latest failure. Dread pressed on her heart like lead ballast.

Cruz paid no attention to the nauseous driver or the woman in back. They held no meaning for him. Only the head carried significance. He dreaded what he knew awaited them inside the neat brick and white clapboard house just beyond the winter-naked oak trees.

He never forgot the first time he had seen this. The living nightmare played in his head time after time, undimmed by the years. He felt it coming for him now in all its lurid detail. For a moment, he felt the insanity, the naked terror ripping through him. He was a child again, running through the rain forest of southern Nicaragua, limbs slapping against his face, lianas groping for his arms, legs, a careless ankle, threatening to snare him, throw him down to the forest floor where soggy masses of rotting vegetation waited to be his grave.

He heard the crashes behind him: the sounds of death stalking his path. The sounds grew louder. His small feet tangled with the extended roots of a huge tree; the unthinkable happened and he went down heavily, holding one trembling hand over his mouth so they would not hear his cry of pain. To cry was to die … like his mother, his father.

“Mr. Cruz?”

The voice reached out from the rear seat.

Tavio turned from his vision. He searched his memory for her name. Petra Armstrong. Yes that was it. He looked at her and found a strong, open face with a firm jaw and high cheekbones.

“Yes?” Cruz’s voice was flat, distant.

“You okay?”

He cocked his head inquiringly. “Of course, why do you ask?”

She had watched him go rigid, like a man in a trance, his eyes fixed on the head. It had alarmed her, but now, as she looked at him, at the deadly white-hot eyes burning beneath the tangle of eyebrows. He looked normal now. Or as close as this odd cold man ever got to normal. Had she imagined it?

“I thought that – “ She paused. “Nothing,” she said quickly. “I think the shock….” she let her voice trail away for lack of words.

“It happens,” he said flatly. “Especially the first time.”

“I wish this were the first time,” Armstrong responded.

Cruz raised his eyebrows. “You’ve seen this before?”

She nodded.

“Operation Croesus Traveler.” Cruz nodded knowingly. “Yes, of course. Your name was in the file. I remember now.”

The file? Exactly who was this strange cold man with the NSA ID badge that he had read the most secret files that her department handled. Who had authorized the reading of the file? She was the head of the department and she had never seen the man before the tan government sedan had pulled up in front of her Capitol Hill townhouse a little less than two hours before.

Who had authorized him to read the Croesus Traveler file? The file’s contents were restricted to a “need to know” basis. Above her, only her boss and the Attorney General had the authorization to release the file. Beneath her, there were but three people with access and only one of them had authorization.

Petra Armstrong wrestled with the anger that burned in her gut. Anger had always been like a Marine: it could be her best friend or her worst enemy.

As a friend, it drove her to perform near-miracles.  But too often it proved a liability that distorted  judgment and made enemies when she really needed an ally.

No more enemies. Not this morning.

Armstrong concentrated instead on the bloody head of a man who, seven years ago, had been a U.S. Attorney, the chief prosecutor of a multi-billion-dollar drug-money laundering operation. The investigation had been code-named Croesus Traveler and had spanned 19 countries on four continents. They’d jailed four of New York’s top bankers, executives with big name banks, and seized more than $12 billion.

But it was the last case the prosecutors and investigators would ever work on. The billions of bloody dollars they had not yet found would do them all in. The billions that still hid in illicit bank accounts in prominent and complicit banks around the globe fueled a relentless vendetta.

That revenge had waited patiently. Three years to the day after the guilty verdicts were returned, the judge in the case died in the spectacular crash and fire of his new Jaguar. Some called it ironic coincidence. Then there were the jurors. Three of the 12 died in other “accidents” before the Justice Department caught on to what was happening. Seven of the remaining nine jurors were placed in the U.S. Marshals Service’s Witness Protection program. The two that refused died quickly in extravagantly violent ways that clearly sent a message to the world.

But even the most case-hardened veterans were not prepared for the onslaught unleashed against anyone from the government who had had anything at all to do with the prosecution: investigators, prosecutors, even clerks, court reporters, bailiffs.

Many had been gratuitously tortured. Some simply killed. Others bore the twisted, horribly, maimed features of those allowed to survive as examples of those who might aid the prosecution of Cartel executives. A number of these people with their nightmare faces and painfully distorted bodies had committed suicide.

In most of these cases, quick damage control by the Justice Department produced cover stories that kept the press and general public from learning about the outrages or drawing connections among the incidents.

But the warnings had reached their intended audience. These days it was not uncommon for court employees to resign rather than work Nassau Cartel cases. Good investigators were increasingly hard to find; there was a rash of missing evidence “misplaced” by police; prosecutors suddenly found more and more creative reasons for dropping or reducing charges. Most often they explained their actions by saying they “Were just picking and choosing our cases carefully to assure convictions. Our critics just don’t understand the criminal justice process. Besides, if Congress appropriated more money, we would be able to tackle more cases.”


Petra knew plomo o plata when she saw it. Lead or silver.

The Colombians had invented the tactic; Nassau had globalized it.

Take the money or take the lead — get rich or die.

By the time Petra had been brought in, all but four prosecutors had been ritually tortured in a classically medieval manner, then beheaded.

Like this morning.

Petra had been second in command of the Witness Protection Program when her boss suddenly resigned just weeks after they had started hiding the Croesus Traveler jurors.

Plomo o plata? No one knew. He never said.

But to avoid a repeat, Petra was put in charge of developing a super-secret program to help the remaining government personnel associated with Croesus Traveler to disappear. The program had no official name, no official funding that appeared on any fiscal memos or appropriations. And most importantly — to avoid the threats and temptations of Plomo o plata, neither Petra nor any of the other U.S. Marshals had any connection with any of the Croesus Traveler personnel.

No written records were kept, no trails left to follow. Information passed verbally in secret places, introductions and arrangements discretely made, money passed as cash in plain white envelopes.

And now someone had passed the Croesus Traveler file on to this strange who looked as if he could be a Colombian hit man.

The sound of the driver’s dry heaves brought Petra back to the reality of the frigid gray morning. She watched as the man pulled himself upright behind the steering wheel. Cruz rummaged through the glove compartment and found a wad of old Burger King napkins no doubt left over from some stakeout or another. He passed them over to the driver who accepted gratefully and wiped his face clean.

The interior of the car filled with the corrosion of fear and the driver’s foul breath.

“No use putting it off any longer,” Armstrong said opening her door. “Besides, it’s getting light. Won’t do to have that …” She looked at the impaled head, “… thing up there for the neighbors to see.”

The two men grunted their reluctant agreement, opened their doors and climbed out.

Petra and Cruz walked toward the house, resolute and ready to be horrified. The driver followed reluctantly behind.

Petra paused by the van  and greeted the all-too-familiar face of the clean-up driver.

“Same as last time,” she told him. “Pictures from all the usual angles as quick as you can and get that …” she looked at the mutilated head that had once housed the intellect of a brilliant lawyer,“ … get that thing out of sight before the neighbors or the paperboy see it. Scour things for evidence, but don’t labor under any false hopes. It’s got to be the same people and so far they haven’t made any mistakes.”

“Yet,” the ambulance driver said hopefully.

“Right,” Petra said. “Just keep hoping.”

Both men zipped up their jackets and crawled out of the van. One held an ultra high-speed digital camera made for night and street-lit scenes that took exceptional images with available light. Strobes attracted unwanted conditions.

“When you’re done,” Petra said, “join us inside. I imagine you’ll need all your tricks again to make the scene look like it can justify ‘natural causes’ on the death certificate.”

The man with the camera nodded.

Petra turned,  headed for the house. Petra hesitated at the threshold, restrained as much by the memory of that other time as she was by the foul coppery stench of slaughter roile out the open door. She swallowed against the memory and the nausea and pressed ahead.

To the kitchen. They always found them there because there were so many items at hand to improvise with.

Petra found Cruz in the kitchen, back in his trance.

What’s with that guy?




Easton, Maryland


Cruz took in the ritual slaughter through eyes that overlaid past with present.

They had killed his mother in the kitchen. The men had held him and his father, made them watch, made them listen to her screams as they lowered her inch by inch onto the foot-long spike that had been driven through the seat of the crude wooden chair in the crude wooden hut that was all an honest policeman could afford. She bled and screamed for hours, impaled on that spike while he and his father struggled with all their might against the men that held them.

He could still feel the tears of frustration and rage burning his cheeks.

It took hours for her to die, and when they were finished tormenting her with the paring knives and the pliers and the hot tortilla press, they hacked her head off.

Honesty killed her. Then it killed his father. In exactly the same way.

Then it was his turn.

First they pulled his pants off and laughed at his little circumcised penis. One man took it and placed it between the blades of a pair of scissors. Octavio remembered the laughs in the nightmares.

Then they bent him double as one of the men unzipped his pants and tried to force himself between the young boy’s thighs.

That was when he panicked.

The men were slippery with the blood of his parents and careless at the thought of having a go at a twelve-year-old boy’s virginity. The boy screamed, twisted. His captor’s blood-slick grasp loosened.

Then he was gone. Alone. Running through the forest, heavy footsteps crashing close on his heels.

Petra saw that strange catatonic look on Tavio’s face again. This time she said nothing. Instead, she looked at the massacre strewn about the kitchen. Exactly the same as the last one. Exactly. Like a ritual.

The naked, headless body was strapped into a cane-backed chair in the middle of the kitchen. Every square inch of the body bore a tattoo etched by lacerations, burns, punctures, abrasions. Blood painted everything. It pooled on the floor, splattered on the walls and ceiling, stippled across the stove, refrigerator, the Mr. Coffee.

Petra stood at the door and took it all in. From the way the blood had sprayed, the prosecutor had obviously been alive when they took his head off.

Numb, Petra catalogued the gore: the pliers with the bits of flesh still gummed in the jaws, the flesh-matted sandpaper sitting next to the salt shaker, the missing fingers on the right hand

(Where were they? Where did they put the fingers?)

… the Cuisinart blades covered in blood and tissue.

She saw they had broken the Cuisinart to allow it to work without the cover.

(Did they laugh? Did they enjoy what they did?)

She turned from the door, not from horror, but because there was no reason to continue looking. There would be a report. This victim too, would be impaled on some long sharp thing; the autopsy would show that he had been tortured and mutilated by experts who had been able to keep him alive for hours.

A DVD would show up in the Attorney General’s office within two weeks. Any questions about how he had suffered and for how long would no longer be left to the imagination then.

She walked through the rest of the house, turning on lights as she went, looking. For what? She didn’t know. For something, for a clue.

As she walked, the anger ate through the shell of numbness.

“Bastards,” she muttered. “Fucking bastards.”

The rest of the house remained untouched. Nothing was out of place, nothing  disturbed. That was part of the pattern.

Cruz joined her at the front door just as the two men from the “ambulance” arrived with a rubber body bag and packs of cleaning gear.

“In the kitchen,” Petra said.

Wordlessly, the men trooped down the hallway to the kitchen.

“We’ve got a leak at the top,” Petra said.

Cruz nodded.

“I’m going to find it.”

“You don’t have jurisdiction for murder,” he said. The Marshal’s service doesn’t. Murder belongs the FBI or the local LEOs.”

“Fuck jurisdiction!” Petra retorted. “These were my people to protect and I’ve had it with watching them get slaughtered one by one.”

He looked at her curiously. “You can’t take on a multi- billion-dollar cartel by yourself.”

“Maybe not, but I can take on a piece of it.”

“The FBI’s — ”

“The FBI has got their political heads so far up their political asses that they’ve done exactly zero on the other murders. ZERO! There’s a leak coming from some plush leather chair in a wood-paneled corner office somewhere and I intend to find the leak and plug it!”

“You could get hurt.”

“Look mister, I could get hurt by a Metro bus crossing Pennsylvania Avenue tomorrow. Enough is enough! Maybe you just don’t understand.”

She turned on her heel and strode toward the tan government sedan.

Yes, he thought as he watched her get in the car. I understand. I really do.







Gulf of Uraba, Colombia


The water ran blood red with the sunset.

On land, men, animals, and machines scurried about like paper silhouettes in the day’s dying moments. Only the occasional electric light from the sleepy hamlet of Turbo punched a hole through the dichromatic landscape.

Down by the pilings of the single shallow pier, the brilliant work lights of a small freighter burned a dazzling spotlight into the scene. A sweating stream of ragged brown men manhandled pallets with crates of bananas and sacks of copra and the other products of their labor.

Those products, though, made for a marginal living. Turbo was a backwater town in a backwater province in northeastern Colombia, far from any major trade routes. The port of Acandi across the gulf of Uraba took most of the banana trade. And Turbo had little of the cocaine wealth that buoyed Medellin some 240 miles south. There had briefly been a respectable amount of smuggling business, but that had collapsed when the big cartels in Medellin and Cali been wrecked then splintered into newer, more lethally corporate organizations.

“Hurry! Hurry!”

A doughy man clad in stained khakis shouted at the workers on the dock. He wore a rumpled hat he had won from an Argentine naval officer decades ago in a Buenos Aires poker game. He took the hat off now, dabbed at his bald spot with a sweat-soaked handkerchief, picked at the frayed gold braid. Finally, he positioned the hat carefully over the bald spot as the ship’s cargo crane lofted another pallet from the dock.

The villagers called him “El Capitano,” and he stood now at the top of the gangplank of the freighter “Pax Pacifico” and quarterbacked the loading of its holds. The pallet swung like a pendulum, then descended toward the forward hold.

The Dutch shipyard of Van Diepen had built the Pax Pacifico in 1940 as a radio station ship. She was later converted to a freighter. Pax Pacifico hadn’t been painted for more than 12 years now and it was hard to make out who she was since all her previous lines and names bled ghost names through the rust in equal proportions. She had been known as “Peace” up until the year before last. And before that, she had plied the world’s oceans as Cito, Westpolder and Rolf. She would probably never see a new coat of paint or a refreshing of her name on the stern

Instead, her small size — 188 feet long and shallow draft of nine feet, four inches — meant that the Pax Pacifico would probably spend the rest of her life as a coastal river cargo carrier shuttling among shallow backwater ports like Turbo scraping for the crumbs of commerce.

An observer from Jane’s compendium of merchant ships, or perhaps the marine insurance underwriters Lloyds would be astounded to learn that while the Pax Pacifico’s skipper was American, and one of the highest paid ship captains in the world. Beneath the rusting decks lay new, immaculately maintained diesel engines of the most modern design, installed and maintained by an off-the-books agency of the U.S. government.

Once every month when the tides were at their highest, she visited Turbo to take on a single cargo container that by itself was worth more than the entire load of the world’s biggest supertanker. Turbo was but one stop in the Pax Pacifico’s eclectic itinerary of sleepy jungle backwater ports. And the Pax Pacifico represented the smallest of a global fleet of air, sea and ground carriers, all under the same obscure direction.

“Faster! Faster!” El Capitano urged the dockworkers on as he kept an anxious eye on the horizontal stripes that banded the front pier pilings. Another was slowly emerging from the oily slick water.

“Hurry!” He shouted. “The tides will not wait forever!” Turbo’s shallow bay had a maximum safe depth of only nine feet, which meant that even with the Pax Pacifico’s shallow draft she could only come in on the highest tide that occurred roughly twice a month.

But the real target of his exhortations had not yet arrived. He looked at his watch, trying to appear casual. Where were they? The delivery was nearly an hour late. Come on! Come on! He urged them silently on. He looked again at the banded piling; another half an hour and the Pax Pacifico might be aground in Turbo’s harbor mud until the next spring tide.

The delays! The man in Washington had been specific: delays were unacceptable. People were punished for delays, especially well-paid ones like El Capitano.

He removed his cap and again mopped the perspiration from the bald spot as he tried to imagine what had kept them? Mechanical failure? Impossible. They traveled in a caravan with a semi tractor and spares of everything.

Ambush? His throat tightened. Most of Colombia’s remote roads suffered from highway bandits. There were certainly plenty of them on the 240-mile stretch of Highway 62 between Turbo and Medellin.

But an attack was unlikely, he reassured himself. The most disciplined crews of M-19 escorted the cargo and they had proven themselves able against all foes, including the Colombian Army who now gave them wide berth — less for their military prowess, than for the political accommodation reached between the Colombian and American governments.

El Capitano’s chest unhitched when he heard the grinding of the gears. Moments later, a single tractor-trailer turned off the main street and growled slowly toward the decaying dock.


The semi’s driver climbed down from the cab and called to El Capitano. The Paz Pacifico’s skipper strode down the gangplank to greet the man.

“Where the hell have you been?” The captain refused the driver’s proffered hand. “Another thirty minutes and you, me, the container, my ship and all your friends will be spending two weeks in this godforsaken village!”

Without waiting for a reply, El Capitano walked around the container, making sure that its doors had been welded shut. The driver followed him closely.

“A mechanical issue, Compadre! the driver shrugged.

The captain nodded, motioned to his crane operator and a trio of his crewmen. Immediately the crane’s arm began to position itself over the container. The crewmen set about removing the chains that bound the container to its flatbed trailer.

With a rattling of chains and grinding of crane gears, the container lifted into the air and swung toward its position of honor over the now-filled forward hold.

“It’s a mystery, isn’t it?” The driver said with an grin.

“A mystery?” The captain said distractedly, his anxiety spent now, his mind on getting the container secured and the freighter under way.

“Who your boss is … who mine is.”

“I know who mine are. So do you,” the captain said, annoyed.

The driver shook his head.

“No, I don’t mean them,” he said. “I mean who they work for. The higher you get, the fewer they are.”

“You’re talking nonsense,” The captain said as he turned and hustled up the gangplank heading for the bridge. El Capitano ordered the engine room to get underway. He didn’t care whom he ultimately worked for as long as whoever they were kept up the steady stream of deposits to the small bank into his account in Fribourg Switzerland.








Geneva sweats death and money far more often than politics and peace.

While political headline seekers rush here to sign international agreements that rarely last beyond the final bottle of celebratory champagne, faceless men who control the money control the world. And they are willing to do whatever is necessary to maintain that control.

It has always been this way.

On this frigid January night, Mont Blanc shivered off a bitter wind that had rolled down into Geneva and sent the wind-chill to 23 below. An emaciated, silty snowfall stung eyes like sand and squeaked underfoot with every step. At the close of business, Geneva’s good protestant burghers had wisely gone straight home, abdicating the winter-dark streets to lingering tourists and dark-skinned foreigners naive to how fast the sub-zero temperatures could frostbite uncovered ears.

By midnight, even those foolhardy few had retreated to the warmth of immaculately kept Swiss hotels. Outside, the virgin snow fell unmolested by footprints.

By 2 a.m. few lights burned except along the Rue du Rhône where it was always daylight for the international banks that followed the sun with their vast webs of computers that never slept.

Money was always in motion. Billions could be made, Trillions controlled and channeled by those willing to keep a steady hand at the helm day and night, day and night. But it was more than just profits. In the 24-hour day of global finance, those who slept, died in their sleep.

Like their neighbors on the Rue du Rhône, profits and survival kept a full staff working around the clock at World BanCorp’s Geneva computer facility. But World BanCorp had an additional reason for its 24-hour day: the corporation’s only product — the WorldBanCard (“We’re everywhere you are”) — was the largest consumer credit card system in the world, and Geneva was the headquarters for processing all international transactions. Somewhere customers were always awake, charging purchases on their WorldBanCards. These mainframes and the people who ministered to them never slept.

Javier Hernandez was used to working late. As head of computer security for World BanCorp’s computer and telecommunications network, he had frequently been called from a warm bed to observe the system as sophisticated hackers tested the system’s limits. Tested but never defeated.

But this evening’s call had been strange. Instead of coming from the computer center, the call had come from David Martindale, World BanCorp’s founder, president and CEO.

Javier stood at the window of his office and gazed through his own reflection, down at frigid streets as deserted as any satellite photo of Mars. He was a medium-tall, medium-built man, just shy of six feet with an olive complexion and dark friendly eyes that camouflaged the keen intelligence lurking behind them.

But Javier ignored his own reflection as he shifted from foot to foot, watched as the large illuminated digital clock on the UBS building down the street flashed to 2:11.

Where the hell was Martindale?

Javier shook his head and sighed. His breath clouded the window for an instant, a silent shout in the empty office. All the evening shift people were at work on the floor below in the sealed, air-filtered mainframe computer center and there had been no one else on the executive office floor when he arrived. It was so quiet and deserted that his thoughts made sounds in his ears.

Javier looked at the battered Seiko on his wrist to make sure the UBS clock hadn’t somehow leapt ahead in time. It hadn’t.

Where the hell was Martindale?

But more importantly, he thought, why had Martindale called? The last Javier had heard, Martindale was visiting World BanCorp’s corporate headquarters in Redwood City, California. What the hell was he doing in Geneva? Javier looked nervously at his watch: 2:17.

Where the hell was Martindale?

Then the door opened. Javier studied the reflection in the window until he was sure the man standing in the doorway was Martindale; then he turned.

“Mr. Martindale,” Javier said. “Good evening … ah, that’s good morning sir.”

Martindale did not acknowledge the greeting.

Instead, he took two steps into the room and another step to the side of the doorway. He held an attaché case in his left hand. And waited.

Waiting? Javier thought as the hairs on the back of his neck tingled. For what?

The answer was not long in coming.

Swift as an avalanche, five massive armed men charged through the open door.

For Javier and his brutally specialized training and expertise, five men was a pretty even match. But his fear soared when he saw that the detail was led by Reza Emami, a former Iranian Quds commander now heading up the personal security detail for Maria Zapata — La Reina Blanca of “The Corporation” — Mexico’s most powerful drug cartel and the genius behind GlobalBanCorp’s electronic money laundering scheme.

Hernandez had spent months preparing the indictment against Zapata and her cartel’s links to Martindale and GlobalBanCorp. What was happening! This was insane.

Emami and his thugs moved with a quickness surprising for men the size of defensive tackles. In an instant they flanked Hernandez at the window. All carried Swiss-made SIG P210 automatic pistols.

A heavy, metallic taste welled up in Javier’s suddenly dry mouth. He opened his mouth. Words failed him. His eyes swept from man to man, surveying the way he walked, the way he held his gun, the intelligence in the eyes, searching for a weakness, a point of attack. But he found none.

In seconds, four armed strangers surrounded Javier, close enough so none of their shots could miss, far away enough that none were within his striking distance. The men were professionals. Javier took small consolation in the fact that he probably wouldn’t be shot by accident.

La Reina Blanca — the white queen — seated herself on the sofa. She nodded to Martindale who stepped

Martindale’s bodyguard closed the office door then stationed himself strategically to his master’s side.

The lamp cast Martindale’s lean, patrician features into sharp angles. Even at two in the morning, heflaunted his full sartorial splendor: the immaculately tailored, double-breasted pinstripes with just the right amount of French cuff showing beyond the coat sleeve, the communion-wafer-thin gold watch around the elegantly slim left wrist and a muted foulard tie.

For God sakes … a fucking tie at 2 a.m.! The man must have been born in a suit.

Martindale thumbed the releases of the attaché case. The polished, solid brass catches thumped expensively against the polished, hand-tooled, hand-stitched leather. In the funereally silent office, the thuds made muted reports like shots from a silenced gun. Martindale regarded the contents thoughtfully for a long moment without taking out any of the papers

Then he fixed Javier with an almost quizzical expression and asked:

“If a body falls and there is no one around to hear it, does it make a scream?”

“I’m sorry, sir?” Javier asked, his voice completely controlled. “I don’t under –“

Martindale cut him off with a vague wave of his hand. “Nothing,” Martindale said. “Nothing. Just a play on an old riddle.”

Martindale fell silent again as he turned his attention to the contents of the attaché case. This time he pulled a sheaf of papers from it and laid them in his lap where the lamp’s light could illuminate them.

When Javier saw the red-bordered paper on top, he knew they were there to kill him.

“I can explain,” Javier offered weakly. The closest goon cuffed the side of his head.

Martindale picked the page from the top of the pile and studied it for a moment. From across the room, Javier could see the “SECRET” stamp on the top and the “NOFORN” designation which prohibited distribution to any foreign sources or contacts.

Involuntarily Javier shook his head, denying the very existence of that paper in this room. It was impossible! That file had been sent through the most secure channels, the signal encrypted twice. The code had been a one-use book code. The scrambler was the most advanced in the world, on loan from the National Security Agency and configured by Javier himself. There was only one other identically configured system in the world and it was on the other side of the Atlantic in the office of, a man of public trust, reputation beyond reproach.

How had the page fallen into Martindale’s hands? Who was the traitor? Where had he gotten it? How had the report gotten to Martindale so fast? Javier’s head spun with the questions when it hit him: the page that Martindale held was not a copy it was the original!

“To say I’m disappointed is a vast understatement,” Martindale said at last. He looked up from the page and waved it at Javier. “You recognize this, don’t you?”

Javier leaned forward, squinting like a puzzled man trying to make out the document in question, playing dumb, playing for time.

“Don’t try to play me for a fool, Javier,” Martindale said sharply. “You know this is your report to the Financial Intelligence Project, giving them the security codes to the World Bancorp computers.” He paused, crossed one leg over the other and adjusted the crease in his trousers.

Martindale studied the knife-edged crease for a long moment then, began to shuffle through the papers in his lap.

“Yes, Javier. That was your report, the last piece of information needed to prove World BanCorp’s relationship with the Nassau Cartel. And perhaps the information the government needed to do something about it … like try to steal it perhaps?”

No! Javier screamed silently to himself. This is not happening!

“Ah, yes.” Martindale said reading Javier’s mask of dismay. “I know all about you and your work.” he looked down at the papers. “All about it.”

Then Martindale pulled a manila folder from the pile, set it on top and opened it. He looked at the contents for a moment. He looked up at Javier.

“I know all about you,” Martindale said evenly. “About how you aren’t really who you’ve said you were over the past three years.” He consulted the papers. “Tony Hernandez, security expert, computer theft consultant, corporate information protection master … that’s what your resume said.” He looked up. “That’s what all the computer banks said too — credit reports, life insurance applications, veterans benefits registration. It was a skillful job of creating a new identity. My congratulations.”

He shook his head. Victory shaped his lips in a grotesque imitation of a smile.

“But as you now know, World BanCorp’s computers are the most powerful in the world. Our data mining has concentrated information from every source imaginable. We know more about our cardholders than their children or their spouses or their mothers and fathers. And we know more about you than you ever possibly imagined.

“But for now, it’s sufficient that you realize we know who you are. Real name: Javier Cortes, former NSA, former Defense Intelligence Agency .…” Martindale paused as he shuffled through the papers. He glanced up to see Javier’s look of astonishment. “Oh, yes. These are all highly classified documents that you thought were buried securely from people like me.” He smiled.

Javier stood, mouth agape, stunned by the depth of the betrayal. Nothing in his experience had ever prepared him for treachery of this magnitude.

“Wrong again, Javier.” Martindale said. “We also know about your special forces assignments inside Pakistan, inside Iran and a dozen other places where you officially never went. You are a highly intelligent, cunning, resourceful operative who has proven himself a ruthless and effective killer.”

Martindale nodded almost imperceptibly and an instant later one of the huge men pulled a sap with lightning swiftness and hammered it into the sweet spot behind Javier’s right ear.

The walls and ceiling and floor spin like a carnival ride. Javier threw out his arms and legs to anchor himself. Instead, each of the apes grabbed one of his legs and arms and suspended him, face down and spread-eagled in the air. He jerked and twisted, to no avail.

“Only you could have exposed our … independent arrangements with the Cartel, and the operations of our subsidiary in Nassau,” Martindale said.

Javier tried to lift his head. The searing pain from the sap arced through his head like an electrical short. Instants later, something roughly grabbed a handful of his hair and jerked his head painfully, pinning the back of his head almost to his shoulder blades.

Through slitted eyelids, Javier saw Martindale’s face just inches from his own.

“It was a good try, Javier,” Martindale said. “But you’re out of your league.”

Javier suddenly hawked, then spat on the banker’s detested face.

“You miserable bastard!” Martindale cursed. “Fucking wetback spic!” He backhanded Javier’s face with his free hand. The room spun again. Through the warm glow of satisfaction, Javier felt the blows landing across his face. He tried to smile.

“Go ahead and smile, you insignificant little prick!” Martindale’s patrician composure shattered into quivering rage. “We’ll see who has the last laugh.”

“You won’t get away with it,” Javier said. “The Swiss don’t like things like this happening on their turf.”

“No, but they’ll close the book on it. Another unfortunate American veteran succumbs to Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.”


“Certainly,” Martindale said smugly, his composure regained. “They’ll receive papers from World BanCorp and from the VA stating that you have suffered from suicidal impulses since returning from the Middle East.”

“That’s a lie!”

“Of course it is,” Martindale said. “But we already have the papers, the documentation. Irrefutable. You have deep cover people in the government and so do we. Only we have more money.”

Martindale turned to his thugs. “Go.”

The men swung him back and forth like a battering ram. Higher and higher. On the upswing, Javier saw the window. He knew then and screamed.

His body slammed into the cobblestones at 63 miles per hour followed by a hailstorm of tempered glass. Javier stopped screaming then.

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