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Richard Andrew Stoner sat at his desk and cursed. The room was dark, lit largely by a desk lamp and his computer screen. The shadowy space was sizeable, with a meeting table, chairs, credenza, and a couch against the wall. It was another all- nighter, and Stoner was certain he would hear about it from Caroline. But he had little choice. He was building an operation the likes of which had never been attempted before. As a result, there was no rule book to follow, nor mentor to guide him. Instead, he was entrusted to figure it out on his own, from scratch.
His wife had known what she was getting into, marrying a career military man. She would just have to understand. And there were so many lives involved. . . . The very thought both exhilarated and terrified him— not that he would ever show it. It was not how he was trained.
That the bud get was seemingly unlimited didn’t hurt. If he needed anything— regardless of how exotic— he could have it delivered within twenty- four hours. Armed with that knowledge, he plunged ahead and hired, purchased, and delegated.
He ran a rough hand through his hair, which had started to go gray. He was powerfully built, and prided himself on staying in shape as an example to others. Every morning began with calisthenics and weight training, and Stoner made time for target practice each week, sampling all the new ordnance that had been arriving from around the world. He’d never imagined preferring a Glock to a Colt, but he adjusted. He felt as if he hadn’t left his office all day, and realized there was a reason for that. He hadn’t. Reaching for his coffee mug that proclaimed “World’s Number One Dad” in a colorful crayon typeface, he tasted the coffee and spat it back. Worse than cold, it was stale.
Stoner decided he needed an orderly, with standing orders to freshen the cup hourly.
Now that’s a great use of personnel, he thought wryly. No, he’d just need to have a coffeemaker installed in his office, with an ample supply of the strongest stuff money could buy. That was the only way he was going to make it through the late nights.
On his sleek desktop were folders bulging with information on potential recruits, requisition forms, status reports, phone messages, urgent notes from department heads, and cata logues to help outfit his army.
Why did I ever let them talk me into this?
He had resisted when called. He was a field officer, not a desk jockey, and he hadn’t felt comfortable with the enormous undertaking the Executive Council had laid out for him. But they had persisted, and with good reason. A clear and present danger had introduced itself— one he recognized as a threat to freedom on a global scale.
That made it a military conflict, something with which he had experience, and no matter what the matériel he requisitioned, what he needed first and foremost would be troops he could trust. That Stoner could cull his team from the best armies throughout the free world still struck him as unprecedented— it made him feel as if he was assembling the ultimate all- star team.
That was how the Council had sold him on the idea, knowing from his record during the desert war that his men would follow him through the gates of hell. His greatest achievement was that he had brought the majority of them back alive. Giving him another opportunity to lead, and to choose from the cream of the crop— it was exactly the right thing to get him to take the job.
How could he say no? Clearly they had done their homework on him, much as he was studying his recruits now.
A view screen nestled in the far wall suddenly lit up, casting a glow that overwhelmed the other sources of illumination. Major Stoner glanced up and saw an agent waiting there. He marveled at the clarity of the image, considering the fact that the signal had been bounced off at least a dozen satellites from six different countries and scrambled to prevent any chance of interception.
The agent himself looked fifteen, but was listed in the rec ords as nineteen. Baby- faced though he might have been, the man was a sharpshooter from the Italian army. “Bianco, you need a haircut,” Stoner grumbled.
“Aye, sir,” the black- haired youth said in flawless En glish with barely a hint of an accent. To Stoner’s silent amusement he remained at attention while Stoner gave him his marching orders and instructions as to where he would be stationed. “And about that haircut— get it before you report for duty,” he added.
“Aye, sir,” Bianco replied impassively.
He tapped a touch pad on his desk, and the image winked, instantly replaced with one of another man, closer to his own age. He had a weathered look that made him appear handsome in an untraditional way. When the man was aware that he had gone live, his eyes sparkled to life. Women no doubt loved him.
“Lockwood,” he said briskly.
“At ease, Lockwood,” Stoner said, forcing his hand not to salute. They were both former U.S. Army, and had similar backgrounds— both having served in the Middle East before reassignment to the new company. But their Army days were behind them.
“I have a job for you, Col o nel. There’s a shipment leaving Cairo at 0800 Thursday. Take charge of it, and make sure it gets where it needs to go,” Stoner said crisply. “At no time is it to leave your control.”
The major was tired, thirsty, and ravenous. Still, he couldn’t present anything but the image of a competent commander, despite visions of cheeseburgers that began dancing through his mind.
“Aye, sir,” Lockwood replied.
“I’m sending the details to your CO. Pick them up within the hour. Stoner out.”
Again the screen winked out, but this time it switched to black, looking like a hole in the wall. He decided he needed the company logo there, as a screen saver to fill the space and act as a constant reminder of this new operation. The design team had gotten the Council’s thumbs- up earlier in the week, and the new insignia was being rushed onto uniforms, letterhead, ID cards, and just about everything but the toilet paper.
With a shrug he returned to his stack of files. Every department seemed to have its own demands and the endless hassles that came with them, but there were only so many hours in the day, and the priority was on staffing. Each hire needed to be vetted. In the beginning the screening had taken six months, and they got it down to four over the past few weeks. The major wanted it down to six weeks, if possible, but that seemed to be a pipe dream given the languages, cultures, and varying infrastructures from which they were plucking the best of the best.
The organizations from which they were being plucked didn’t always let them go easily, either. They continued to protest, but every Friday, before wearily returning to his home in Decatur, Stoner noted with satisfaction the charts that showed inexorable progress, as they kept inching toward 100 percent staffing.
He surveyed the mess on his desk, sat back in the comfortable leather chair, and sighed. Stoner was career Army and he still marveled that the Council had picked him out of the dozens of acceptable candidates they must have considered. They had told him— from behind opaque screens that hid their identities— that he had the right experience, training, and temperament to build this ambitious experimental program.
Caroline tried to be understanding, really she did, but since he had been reassigned, his absences had grown longer and longer. She was starting to grumble herself, while Willie and Emily were also making it known that Dad’s presence was missed. Willie was still young, but Emily was a teenager now. Thinking about them gave him pause, their smiling faces replacing the mouthwatering cheeseburgers in his mind’s eye, and it made him smile; his first real smile of the day.
But it didn’t last. His mouth was pasty since he’d had nothing substantial to eat or drink in hours, and he thought maybe he could grab something from the mess and finish tidying his desk before calling it a day.
Stoner rose from his desk and felt a muscle strain in his right hip. Although he continued to work out, age was definitely starting to catch up to him. Maybe a desk job made more sense than the field, after twenty- three years in the ser - vice.
Of course, he observed, this wasn’t an ordinary desk. It gleamed in the dim lighting, some sort of polished metal with a coating that left it feeling slick. He also noticed that it never left a trace of having been touched, no coffee stains or fingerprints, but no one could tell him what it was made from. Not the desk, nor the devices it hid.
Not even his CIO could fully explain all the gadgets that had been awaiting him in the office on his first day on duty. He had telecommunications technology that seemed to have been taken from an outlandish Sci-Fi Channel tele vi sion series—Stargate or Seeker 3000. He’d been told that much of it was cutting edge, and as far from off- the- shelf as you could imagine.
Everything about the Atlanta headquarters felt largerthan- life, from the office furnishings to the gymnasium.
What boggled his mind was the notion that the leadership continued to call this their temporary quarters. Then they had showed him the computer models for the real HQ, already nearing completion. He swore it was something the Japa nese had designed, like those transforming robots Willie always watched on tele vi sion.
Speaking of which . . . he looked at the digital readout on his computer screen. It showed Zulu time and Decatur time, and he saw that it was growing late. Maybe he could eat on the way home, risking crumbs in the car.
Yeah, time to call it a night. Lifting the handset from his desk phone, he had an instant connection to his secretary, who put in even more hours than he did.
“Lieutenant Adannaya, it’s time to go home,” he said.
“I’ll call the motor pool,” she said.
“I’ll pick up the car around front,” he acknowledged.
“Better enjoy this while I can. I gather the commute to the real office will be a real bitch.”
“But with no traffic to speak of,” she countered. “And given the parking lot they call the I-285 beltway, I have to say that I approve.” She clicked off.
He liked her soft Afrikaans voice, and thought they worked well together, even though she had been assigned to him without choice. In fact, she had been hired before him, and had spent a week readying his office while he was still being briefed by the Council.
He began scooping up the clutter, forming it into a single pile so he could quickly locate what ever he needed, placing other items in the outbox that he knew would be tended to the moment he cleared the doorway. Things ran smoothly here, and he never had to sweat the details, focusing instead on the Big Picture.
That must be why they pay me the big bucks.
So intent was Stoner on or ga niz ing his desk, deciding on a wrap or salad for dinner, rather than the greasy and tasty cheeseburger, and figuring out what lame excuse he could offer his wife, he didn’t hear the door slide open.
As it softly locked into place, however, Stoner heard the click and looked up to see if the lieutenant needed something before he left.
There was no one by the door.
Instantly alert, he glanced around the office. By the couch was a shape.
A man- shape.
Stoner’s hands moved. One reached for the Glock at his hip, the other tapped the red key that instantly deleted his hard drive and sent out an emergency signal. He knew his computer was backing up his data every forty- five seconds, so little could be lost.
The Glock 17 carried seventeen rounds but was also low weight with reasonable recoil, allowing him to fire it accurately with one hand. The pistol aimed itself at the couch but the figure was missing.
As thin gray smoke from the self- immolating disc drive wafted up from beneath the desk, a fist swung from the opposite side, connecting with the major’s temple and sending him to the carpeted floor.
He couldn’t imagine how the assailant had got past the building’s state- of- the- art security, or how he managed to move so silently now, here within the office. But he brushed the thoughts aside, and crouched to defend his turf.
The smoke actually helped him frame the figure, and Stoner launched himself forward. His hands grabbed onto fabric and felt the realness of the man.
The intruder’s hands were already in motion, clubbing Stoner’s ears and causing concussive pain. The soldier refused to let go, though, and as the man tried to box his ears a second time, Stoner head- butted him.
The force of impact made the man fall back and Stoner raised the pistol, eager to gain an advantage. Instead, a swift kick knocked the gun loose from his hand, and a second connected with the major’s right kneecap. An explosion of pain traveled from knee to hip, and he staggered.
The attacker pressed his new advantage and swung with lefts and rights to keep Stoner off balance. A thick, muscled man, Stoner stayed low and absorbed most of the blows, although he couldn’t gain the upper hand.
He had to put this enemy down, and fast. His hand found the barrel of his Glock and quickly scooped it up. There was no time to reverse it, so he used the handle as a bludgeon. He felt metal connect with bone and the attacker grunted once— the first sound he had made.
Stoner rose to his feet, feeling the pain throb up his right leg, making standing difficult but not impossible. He focused on his breathing, keeping it controlled, and mea sured the distance between the two of them. His assailant passed into the glow from the desk lamp, and what the major saw made him pause.
The other man was wearing some sort of camouflage that let him flawlessly blend in with the wood paneling, patterned carpet, or even the metal desk. It covered every inch of his body, and had to be some sort of new material, he thought quickly.
But then the intruder crouched again. The techies could study the fabric once the assailant was in the brig. Stoner launched himself through the air, a direct assault, his right hand still hefting the pistol; the left hand pulled back in a fist of granite.
They collided and rolled over the desk, scattering its contents, then went tumbling to the ground with Stoner smacking the pistol into the man’s hooded head. He heard the glass goggles crack, just a little tinkle, but it caused him to grunt with satisfaction.
This low to the ground, the air was tangy with the smoke of burning circuits, which were softly crackling from within his futuristic desk. They rolled away from it and banged into the desk chair, which in turn rolled to give them room. Over and over they went, grappling, with neither man gaining a clear advantage.
Stoner was on top for a brief moment, and raised his right arm to land a hard blow with the pistol, hoping to put the man out. Instead, he heard a soft metallic sound, then felt a very sharp blade slice through his starched white shirt and flowered blue tie and into his skin. He looked down and saw the knife blade extend from under the attacker’s left wrist, attached to a bracelet of some sort.
The blood blossomed across the now- ruined shirt, a black stain in the murkiness, and he felt the cool steel pierce skin, blood vessels, and muscle, cutting deep.
He tried to cry out for help, but blood filled his throat, making it painful even to breathe.
The knife jerked in and up, gutting him like a freshly caught fish.
Within seconds, Stoner lost consciousness. His final clear thought was a flash of regret that he couldn’t take Willie to the Falcons game that weekend.
Once Stoner was a lump of flesh on the floor, the intruder stood and surveyed the room. Not only had the computer fried itself, but the files were a scattered mess, and he didn’t have time to glean their value. Still, that didn’t concern him— any intelligence would be appreciated, but that had been a secondary goal.
His mission had been to kill Rick Stoner, and it had been successfully accomplished.
The assassin knew he had only minutes to retrace his steps and slip away before being caught by the night shift security detail— however many remained alive. He had to exit the brownstone and reach the spot where his transport awaited him.
Quickly, he left the office and strolled past the body of Lt. Adannaya, slumped over her own terminal. As he passed her cooling form he reached under his outfit for a small metal box. With one hand, he slid open the seal and depressed the single button. Then he set the box next to the lifeless woman.
He was safely three blocks away before the explosion that reduced the building to a heap of rubble. Without turning, the man muttered under his breath.