When those inside the corridors of power need help outside the law, they know who to call. Jonathan Grave, covert rescue specialist, always gets results. But perhaps what’s most valuable of all is what stays missing: No names. No feds. No trace evidence.
When an Indiana college student is abducted, Grave and his team of operatives unravel a deadly scheme the government would prefer to keep hidden. But things get complicated when an investigative reporter—who happens to be married to Grave’s ex-wife—goes missing. Someone rich and powerful is willing to do anything to control a devastating secret. And that includes killing the people Grave loves most.
“The launch of a really exciting series.”—Joseph Finder, New York Times bestselling author of House on Fire
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By JOHN GILSTRAP
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2009 John Gilstrap, Inc.
All rights reserved.
The fullness of the moon made it all more complicated. The intense silver glow cast shadows as defined as midday despite the thin veil of cloud cover. Dressed entirely in black, with only his eyes showing beneath his hood, Jonathan Grave moved like a shadow in the stillness. Crickets and tree frogs, nocturnal noisemakers by the thousands, gave him some cover, but not enough. There was never enough cover. He reminded himself that he was in Indiana soybean country facing a clueless adversary, but then he remembered the penalty for failing to respect one's adversary.
The Patrone brothers had been arguing for every one of the twenty minutes that Jonathan had been monitoring them. The bud in his left ear picked up every word, beamed to him from the tiny wireless transmitter he'd stuck to the lowest pane of the front window. From what he'd been able to determine from his hasty research in the past few hours, the Patrones were nobodies—just a pair of losers from West Virginia whose motives for this kidnapping adventure were unclear, and from Jonathan's perspective, irrelevant.
The stress of the kidnappers' ordeal had clearly begun to take its toll. They'd counted on Thomas Hughes's parents coughing up the ransom quickly, and now they couldn't figure out what had gone wrong.
"I'm tired of being jerked off by that asshole," Lionel said. The older of the two, he was the hothead. "Old Stevie Hughes needs more proof, maybe we should just cut off a piece of Tommy and send it to his old man in an envelope."
Jonathan picked up his pace, kneeling in the dew-wet grass to un-sling his black rucksack and open the flap. With his night vision gear in place, the darkness burned like green daylight.
"You're not serious," said Little Brother Barry. His tone carried an unstated plea. He was the pacifist. Jonathan liked pacifists. They lived longer.
Lionel continued to rant as Jonathan produced a coil of detonating cord from his pack and slid a K-Bar knife from its scabbard on his left shoulder. He measured out about an inch of cord, sliced it off the roll, and slid the knife back home. With a loop of black electrician's tape, he attached the det cord to the cable that brought electrical service to the house, then slid the initiator into place. Det cord was the best stuff in the world. A woeful bit of overkill in this case, but unquestionably effective.
"Chris said to wait," Barry said to his brother.
Jonathan pressed the transmit button in the center of his Kevlar vest and whispered, "Boss's name is Chris." It was the missing bit of data from three days of gathering intel.
A familiar voice crackled in his ear, "Copy that. Any sign of him yet?"
"I was going to ask you," Jonathan whispered. "I've only got two friends here." They knew from an eyewitness to Thomas Hughes's kidnapping that three hooded figures had carried the naked Ball State student out of his apartment in the middle of the night. Jonathan didn't like the fact that one member of the team remained unaccounted for.
The tone and pace of the kidnappers' argument told him that their frustration level had passed the tipping point into desperation. He moved faster.
"This whole thing is hopelessly messed up," Lionel said. "Maybe Chris got picked up by the cops."
"Maybe you're just paranoid," Barry soothed.
"This was supposed to be easy money. My ass."
Jonathan was at the back of the house now—the black side, as he thought of it—and it was time to prepare the doors for entry. The Patrones had stashed Thomas Hughes in the basement. In this part of the country, it was probably called a storm cellar. Or maybe a root cellar. Constructed entirely of stone, from the outside it could be accessed through two heavy wooden doors that sloped at a shallow angle from ground level. When the time came, those doors would be Jonathan's point of entry.
Pulling his cell phone from its pouch on his vest, Jonathan flipped open the cover and viewed the image transmitted by the spaghetti-size fiber optic camera he'd inserted between the doors. In the light cast by the single dim lightbulb inside, he had difficulty making out any real detail, but he saw what he needed. Their precious cargo hadn't moved in the last half hour. The fourth-year music major lay naked on the basement floor, his arms, legs, and mouth bound with duct tape.
"Hang on a little longer," Jonathan whispered. The kid had no idea that he was moments away from rescue. For all he knew, this was all he'd ever see again. Even after he was safe, there'd be no way to erase the trauma of these past four days. Whoever Thomas Hughes had been before the kidnapping would be forever changed. It would be years before he'd feel real joy again, and chances were, he'd never rediscover the trust he once felt toward others.
The speaker bud in his right ear—the one not occupied by the Patrones—crackled again. "Sit rep, please." Apparently two minutes had passed since they'd last spoken, and Jonathan's airborne partner, Brian Van de Meulebroeke—"Boxers"—wanted a situation report, per their standard operating procedure. They spoke on encrypted radio channels without worry of casual eavesdroppers.
"I'm preparing for breach now," Jonathan said.
Still using night vision, he removed three GPCs—general purpose charges—from his rucksack, one for each of the door hinges on the right-hand side, and a third for the heavy-duty padlock in the middle. Constructed of C4 explosive with a tail of det cord to ensure proper activation, GPCs were as malleable as modeling clay, infinitely reliable, and effective as hell. The phrase "shock and awe" would take on a whole new meaning when the blast waves were focused on a room as small as the cellar.
Lionel said, "Let's cut off the kid's balls."
Jonathan felt his stomach drop.
"What?" At least Barry was horrified. That was a good sign.
"You heard me. We'll cut off his balls and send them to his father for jerking us around."
"That's sick," Barry said.
"What's sick about it? He's gonna die anyway."
"Don't say that."
Jonathan pressed his transmit button again. "See our friend Chris yet? Looks like I'm going to have to pull the trigger on this thing."
In his ear: "Sorry, boss, I got nothing. Nearest headlight is two miles away and heading in the other direction."
"I copy," Jonathan said. Just calm down in there.
Lionel was explaining the way of the world to his little brother. "You seriously thought we were keeping him alive? Why would we do that?"
"Because they paid the ransom."
Lionel laughed. "That's why Grandma always loved you best. You were always the sweet naive one."
With the breaching charges in place, timed to fire five hundred milliseconds apart, Jonathan took a few steps back from the doors and glanced again at the image on his phone. Thomas Hughes had shifted from his stomach onto his side, his knees still drawn up, just as they'd been in all the photos they'd sent. Jonathan scowled. If the kid hadn't had a chance to stretch in four days, he wasn't going to be much of a runner when the time came to move.
"Don't you get it, little brother?" Lionel went on. Jonathan could hear the sick smile. "Kidnapping gets you thrown in jail forever. Add murder and you get forever plus a couple of years. It doesn't matter. I'm not taking the chance that Mr. Rich Kid is gonna testify against me. We get the money, we kill him, bury the body, and disappear."
"Nobody said anything about killing!" Barry protested.
"Because no one thought you were an idiot."
"So what's all this bullshit with the photos and everything been about?"
Lionel laughed long and hard. "Just what you said. Bullshit. The family was suspecting we were gonna kill him, so they kept insisting on a new, more recent picture. That meant we had to keep him alive until the money was in our hands. Get it?"
Jonathan winced. He himself had devised the ruse of demanding photographs—a proven tactic to buy time to figure out where Thomas was. He decided to move back around to the front of the house to see if he could get a peek through the windows and a better handle on their emotions.
"Hey, you know what?" Lionel said. His voice had dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "We might be on our way to jail anyway. Maybe Chris went straight to the cops and told them everything. I bet they're outside right now." There were footsteps in Jonathan's ear, then ahead and to the left, the front door flew open and Lionel stepped out onto the front porch.
"Shit," Jonathan hissed. He was frozen in plain sight, but concealed by the house's moon shadow. If he didn't move, maybe he'd stay invisible. Certainly, this was not the time to duck for cover. His hand moved to raise his battle-slung M4 assault rifle to his shoulder. He had no desire to take his adversary here, but he wasn't going to get shot, either.
"Are you out here, assholes?" Lionel shouted. He held a pistol in his hand. "Why don't you come and get me?" He fired two shots into the night. To Jonathan's ear, they were .38s.
Barry's voice hissed in an urgent, whispered shout, "What the hell are you doing? The whole county will hear."
"What do I care?"
Jonathan could see them both now, out on the porch, and he wondered if Barry might become Lionel's first victim. Calculating the distance and correcting for the breeze, Jonathan slipped a gloved finger into the trigger guard and waited.
"I'm done with this shit," Lionel shouted. "I'm fucking done with it."
"We're almost home," Barry soothed. "We've come this far. We don't want to screw it up by—"
"Don't you get it? There's nothing left to screw up. We've been abandoned, little brother."
"You don't know that. Negotiations just aren't going as good as they were supposed to."
"You don't know that" Lionel was aching for a fight, and he'd take it however he could get it. The two brothers stood there, staring at each other. Finally, Lionel nodded. "Okay," he said.
Jonathan watched the tension drain from Barry's shoulders.
"You're right, Barry. It's just the negotiations." Lionel stepped back inside. Just from the length of his first stride, Jonathan knew that more was coming. "So, let's do something to speed them along." More footsteps.
Barry hurried after him. "What are you doing?" Panic had returned to his voice.
"What I should've done a long time ago," Lionel said.
"Shit. What are you doing with those?"
"Just what you think I am."
Jonathan cursed under his breath. His equipment didn't have the capability to monitor two images at once, and now he wished he'd opted to slip the camera into the top floor instead of the basement.
"We can't do that," Barry begged. "Not yet. We can't."
"Watch me," Lionel growled. "You just hold him down."
Jonathan dashed back to the cellar doors. This whole thing was coming unzipped. As the Patrone brothers moved away from the microphone, their conversation became muddled and difficult to understand. But he could see them both as they paraded down the interior stone steps. They looked remarkably like their driver's license photographs. He pressed his transmit button. "I think it's going hot," he whispered.
"Roger that, boss. I'll move in closer, but stay airborne till you advise."
Jonathan didn't bother to respond. Things were happening too fast now.
In the cellar, Lionel led the way, with Barry close behind. "We're not supposed to do anything till Chris comes back." He seemed to think that repeating the same sentiment could change the future.
"Fuck Chris," Lionel spat. "Spread his legs and hold him down."
Thomas Hughes bucked wildly on the floor, a futile effort to get away, to do something. Lionel fired a brutal kick into the boy's side, but Thomas only doubled the intensity of his struggle. In his hands, Lionel held a pair of long-handled pruning shears, the kind you use to cut through inch-thick tree limbs.
It was time.
Jonathan let the rifle fall against its sling, drew his .45, and pressed against the wall.
"Relax," Lionel said with a laugh. "This is only gonna hurt like a mother—"
Plugging his right ear to protect it from the concussion that was on its way, Jonathan punched a three-digit code into his cell and pressed Send.
Jonathan registered the explosions as four separate blasts, but inside it sounded like the end of the world. The first explosion severed the electrical service; the next three blew the right-hand door panel off its hinges. It fell inward, flat against the interior stairs, forming a kind of sliding board, which Jonathan utilized to skid into the room.
"Freeze!" he yelled. "Don't move or I'll kill you!" Victim and captors were blind in the darkness, but Jonathan could see every detail in the green hue that he'd come to think of as nighttime. The Colt 1911 was an old friend in his hand, the grip settling into his leather-palmed Nomex gloves. He never even glanced at his sights—there was no need. If he pulled the trigger the target would die. "Put your hands where I can see them!"
What happened next was as predictable as it was inevitable. Lionel was pissed, and he was scared, the deadliest of combinations. He flung the pruning shears to the side and drew his pistol from the waistband of his jeans. It was a little .380 automatic, and he fired toward the sound of Jonathan's voice. The bullet missed by more than a foot.
Jonathan's did not. He fired three times before the echo of Lionel's shot had faded, hitting the kidnapper twice in the heart and once in the forehead, dropping him like a rock. On the floor, Thomas Hughes reassumed his fetal position, trying to keep himself as small as possible.
Barry panicked in the darkness. "Lionel!" he yelled. He reached out with both hands, as if to parody a blind man.
"He's dead, Barry," Jonathan said. "And I'll kill you, too, unless you do what I say. Raise your hands and spread your fingers."
"You're lying," Barry said.
"Take two giant steps backward and raise your hands." Jonathan's tone was neither soft nor harsh. Matter-of-fact, it left no room for negotiation.
"Who are you?" Barry shouted. Panic rattled his voice.
"Hands, Barry. Don't make me shoot you."
Barry Patrone was clueless. Jonathan could tell from the befuddled look that he had lost his grip on what was real and what was not. The kidnapper's eyes darted to every compass point, his pupils glowing like monster-eyes in the infrared light.
Thomas hollered behind his gag.
"Thomas, be quiet. You're safe. This is almost over. Barry, I need to see those hands."
"Who are you?" Barry asked again. It was as if his brain was stuck, and couldn't progress until he got an answer. He was crying. He paced blindly, his brain lost in that corridor that separated panic from lunacy.
"I'm not waiting forever," Jonathan said. "If I shoot your knees, you'll hit the floor. Is that what you want? It's your call."
Barry shook his head frantically. He reflexively moved two paces to the left. No, he didn't want his knees to be shot. His sneakered foot bumped his brother's body, and he slipped in the gore, almost losing his balance. "What's that?" he whined. He stooped to his haunches and felt out into the darkness. "Oh, God. Is that Lionel?" His hands found his brother's shoulder. Then they found the gaping trench that had been gouged through his brain.
"On the floor, damn it!" Jonathan commanded.
Barry made an animal sound, part wail and part shriek. The sound reverberated off the walls. "You killed him!" he sobbed. "You killed him!"
Jonathan saw the hysteria in Barry's face.
"He left me no choice," Jonathan said, his tone more appropriate for a business decision than a shoot-out. "Don't make the same mistake."
Jonathan might as well have been speaking Swahili. Barry just stayed there, squatting on the floor, hugging his knees, making a keening sound. "You killed him. You killed him ..." He said it over and over again.
Three feet away, Thomas tried to rise to his knees.
"Stay put, Thomas!" Jonathan commanded. The last thing he needed was to have his aim spoiled. "Just stay on the floor out of the way. You're not going to get hurt."
When Barry Patrone looked up, Jonathan saw that he'd made up his mind to be stupid. Uncannily, he looked straight at Jonathan when he said for the dozenth time, "You killed him."
"Don't be an idiot, Barry. You've got no cards here ..."
Excerpted from No Mercy by JOHN GILSTRAP. Copyright © 2009 John Gilstrap, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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