Special Forces veteran Jonathan Grave is the hunter—and the hunted—in John Gilstrap’s electrifying new thriller . . .
An island paradise held hostage. A band of dangerous killers unleashed. A sinister plot that could push the superpowers to the brink of war. For Jonathan Grave and Gail Bonneville, the Crystal Sands Resort has become the ultimate flashpoint. Their mission: defeat the attackers before more lives are lost. Their only hope is Grave’s partner Boxers, but he’s hundreds of miles away. Grave may be without weapons, but he’s never without resources. That’s when he’s most lethal—when he will strike fast, hard, and without warning
. . .
“Rocket-paced suspense.”—Jeffery Deaver
“When you pick up a Gilstrap novel, one thing is always true—you are going to be entertained at a high rate of speed.” —Suspense Magazine
“If you like Vince Flynn and Brad Thor, you’ll love John Gilstrap.” —Gayle Lynds
About the Author
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"SO, LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT," ANNIE BANKS SAID, LEANING IN A little closer. Her eyes looked less swimmy than her words sounded. "You get to stay here as long as you want, eat the food, drink the booze, and you don't have to pay for it."
Tyler Stratton smiled and sipped from his Jack and Coke — his fifth of the evening. "Divorce isn't necessarily as traumatic for children as the talk shows lead you to believe," he said. "Paternal guilt is a powerful force." They sat at a table for two in the largely empty lobby bar, surrounded by mahogany and crystal. While the place didn't close for another half hour, all but the most stalwart patrons had headed off to bed. Truth be told, Tyler was ready for some tangled-sheet recreation himself, but Annie seemed resistant.
"Your father really owns all of this?" she asked, not for the first time.
"Stepfather," Tyler corrected, also not for the first time. Then he added new detail. "I was barely a toddler when my real father was killed in a robbery. When Baker Sinise married my mom, he took on the daddy role all the way. When things went south with their marriage, Baker was really broken up about leaving me." The lump that appeared in his throat surprised him.
"Sending you to military school wasn't exactly an act of love, was it?"
Tyler took another sip. "Well, yeah, it kinda was. I was what you might call an 'angry young man.' "
"Angry at your mom?"
"Do we really have to talk about this?"
"You never talk about your early years," Annie said.
"There's a reason for that."
"You want to get laid or not?" She sold that with just the right coy smile.
He laughed. "So, you're going nuclear on me." He prepared himself with a breath. "I was angry at the world," he said. "Not Mom, per se, but she took the brunt of it. I was pissed when my dad died, and then I was pissed when Baker and Mom started to fight."
"So, he left you guys and moved to the islands to buy a hotel?"
Tyler bobbed his head noncommittally. "You lose track of about six years in there, but yeah. And it's not just the hotel. It's the whole freaking island."
"You can own an island?"
Tyler laughed at the amazement in her face. "Who knew, right?"
"And he's okay with you bringing guests to share all the freebies?"
Tyler broke his gaze. Lying was never his long suit, and he had it on good authority that his eyes always gave him away.
"What?" Annie leaned in closer.
It was a question he hadn't expected.
"He knows I'm here, right?"
Tyler cleared his throat. "He'd be fine with it," he said.
"Then why —"
A loud crash terminated her words, yanked their heads back toward the ornate wooden door with its cut glass insert. The doors exploded open as if hit with a battering ram, ripping the auto-close hardware from their mounts. Before the panels could rebound, three men charged through the opening, identical assault rifles pressed to their shoulders. And they looked dead serious about using them.
"Hands up!" one of them yelled as he swept the room with the muzzle. "Hands! Hands! Hands!" The gunman's friends mimed his actions and echoed his commands.
Tyler thrust his hands high, while Annie just sat there, her face a mask of fear. Confusion.
"Annie!" he whisper-shouted.
An instant later, through his peripheral vision, he caught a fellow drinker and his date bolting from their stools at the bar, heading toward the doors that led to the beach. They'd made it maybe three strides when a burst of gunfire knocked them both to the polished bamboo floor and shattered two panels of the wall of windows. After impact, neither of them moved.
Annie screamed, drawing the muzzles of two rifles in her direction.
"Shut up!" one of the invaders ordered. "Shut up now, or shut up forever."
Annie clasped her hands over her mouth, as if it were the only way to halt the sound.
"Your friends were stupid!" the invader yelled to the guests who remained in the bar. "They didn't listen and now they are dead. Do exactly as I say, and the same will not happen to you."
Tyler nudged Annie with his raised elbow. "Put your hands up," he hissed.
They moved from her mouth and stretched high over her head. At first, Tyler thought that maybe she was mocking the terrorists with such an absurd stretch, but then he realized she was just that terrified.
"Up!" the same invader commanded, gesturing with the muzzle of his gun. Since he was the only one talking, Tyler figured him to be the man in charge. "All of you stand where you are, next to your chair. Ladies, leave your purses and handbags where they are."
"What are you going to do?" asked another lady who was perched at the bar.
One of the silent attackers whirled on her and fired a single bullet into the front panel of the bar, missing her by only an inch or two.
"That wasn't bad marksmanship," the leader said. "That was a warning to listen carefully and to keep your mouths shut. Now, please stand, everyone, so I don't have to make you fall. Keep your hands up the whole time. It will feel awkward, but you can do it."
Awkward didn't touch it. As Tyler slid from his elevated stool and tried to push it back with his butt, it toppled with a clatter and a slam. He jumped, but his captors did not. Apparently, they'd been expecting that. Other chairs toppled, as well, but everyone complied.
"Well done," the leader said. "Now, gentlemen, I want you to move very deliberately and carefully to turn out your pockets. I want it all. Wallet, keys, cell phones, cameras, and even your wristwatches. Pretend that you are naked, but with clothes. You will be searched afterward, and you do not want to be found noncompliant with this."
Tyler complied, placing his wallet, room key, and phone on the bar table, then raising his hands again.
When the men were done, the lead terrorist said, "Ladies, the rules are the same for you. If your items are all contained in your purses, then you are done for now. If you have items in your pockets, empty them."
Tyler shot a look to Annie, who shook her head. She had nothing.
"You're doing very well," the leader said. "Now I want you all to move to the center of the room and join together." He motioned to a spot near the center of the wall of glass doors.
As Tyler's heart hammered, he felt his face flush. They were being herded into a smaller target. They'd taught him some of those terror tactics at Wilmot Academy, not as a lesson on what to inflict, but rather as a lesson on what to avoid. They were quickly reaching the point of no return, yet it would be foolish to even think about running or fighting. A simple glimpse at the bloody corpses on the floor was testament to that. Compliance was the only option. Victimhood. This was really, really bad.
When everyone was in the proper spot, the invaders pressed them progressively tighter into each other, until they were touching, shoulder-to- shoulder or chest-to chest. Tyler counted eight of them altogether, and of the crowd, he and Annie were the youngest by at least ten years.
Beyond the shattered doors, somewhere out in the night, more gunshots rattled the stillness. The hostages — is that what they were now? — all jumped, but no one screamed. A lesson well learned.
"Join hands," the leader commanded, "everyone facing each other. We will be walking all the way down to the beach. It is a full moon, and we can see you, so do not attempt to run. If one of you tries to run, I will shoot the entire group. Do you understand? I expect an answer."
About half of them said, "Yes," and the other half mumbled some version of "I understand." But everyone answered, and no one said, "No."
Tyler gripped Annie's hand in his own left, while a sweaty fat guy did his best to crush his right. Tyler nudged the guy and said, "Lighten up, that hurts."
When the guy failed to respond — he just kept his eyes locked to the front — Tyler rattled the guy's hand to get his attention. When Hand Crusher's gaze shifted, Tyler whispered, "You're hurting me. Ease up."
This time, the pressure eased.
"No talking," the invader snapped, and Tyler felt a surge as someone pushed the group forward.
The doors from the lobby bar led to the expansive veranda with its slate floors and gorgeous wicker furniture. Only five hours before, Tyler and Annie had enjoyed evening cocktails before dinner there. Two hours before that, the maître d' had sheared the neck off a bottle of Dom Pérignon as part of the resort's famous evening ritual.
Tyler found himself walking in shuffling half steps amid the crowd, the only way to keep his balance.
The veranda led to a wide flight of five steps that grounded out at the perfectly manicured lawn, where earlier in the afternoon, hotel guests dressed all in white had engaged in a rousing croquet match. The pretentiousness of the Crystal Sands Resort made Tyler's skin crawl. But the ladies loved it, and it was free. Pretty high cotton for an unemployed nineteen-year-old.
A hundred yards ahead, there'd be another short flight of stairs down to the beach, where there'd be another hundred yards of flawless sand, and after that, a 100-mile swim through the Pacific Ocean to the western coast of Mexico.
Twenty-five yards short of the steps to the beach, their captor ordered a hard right turn. Linked as they were in a circle, some stumbled at the pivot, but no one fell. More gunfire ripped the night, this volley coming from far away, well on the other side of the clubhouse and the pool. Tyler thought he might have seen flashes.
"None of your concern," the leader said. "We are heading for the pool deck."
That meant another hundred yards or so of difficult footing. The circle of strangers navigated erupting palm roots and fallen coconuts as they made their way through the shadows cast by tastefully suspended lights that had been installed in the treetops. And because God had a wicked sense of humor, the in-ground sprinkler system was throwing water everywhere. Though the air temperature was likely still eighty degrees, the water and the slight breeze combined to make the night feel frigid. Within seconds, Tyler's khaki shorts and polo shirt were soaked, as was Annie's slinky little dress. He felt like a pig for noticing that she wasn't wearing a bra, and that, well, she was cold, too.
"Why is this happening?" Annie whispered.
"Just keep going," Tyler whispered back. "I don't know."
"Are they terrorists, do you think?"
"I don't know that, either," he said. Listening to the news, you'd think there was a very specific definition for what a terrorist was, but if these thugs didn't meet a commonsense definition, he didn't know who could. "Just do what they say."
The pool at the Crystal Sands Resort was unlike any community pool Tyler had frequented as a child. No rectangular construction and swimming lanes here. This was a pool that wanted to be a lagoon. The complex was actually a series of pools, split among four different levels, each linked by elaborate waterfalls and separated by flowers and palm trees. A lazy river circumnavigated the whole area, providing opportunities for guests to float on rafts through the bar and restaurant areas. The water in the river was dormant now, but the waterfalls still flowed. The normally soothing sound of rushing water provided no solace tonight as Tyler marched like a gulag prisoner to his death.
More gunshots in the distance.
As his cluster of hostages made their way up the gradual hill to the concrete lagoon, Tyler saw more of the guests being herded into the same spot. They, likewise, moved in clusters, hands joined as they shuffled along. The smallest group he saw was four people, the largest looked to be ten. Everyone wore varieties of nearly nothing, clearly having been rousted from sleep.
Terror and dread manifested differently among the terrified. Some people were crying — men and women alike — but most moved stoically, eyes wide and darting from compass point to compass point. Tyler saw the Rabinowitzes, the older couple from Indiana that he'd crossed paths with late in the day yesterday. Mr. Rabinowitz — Jacob, if Tyler remembered correctly, an ego-fueled executive with a trash company — was bitching to the poolside bartender about the blandness of his Bloody Mary. When he'd caught sight of Tyler watching, the old guy had said, "Mind your manners, shithead." The wife — Tyler didn't catch her name — rolled her eyes, his clue that this was common. It must be tough going through life living with an asshole for a soul mate. The enormous rocks adorning her fingers and ears were clues, Tyler thought, to the price of tolerance.
Tyler saw Zach Turner and his wife approaching, as well. They were a nice couple from Virginia. He'd spent over an hour with them at the edge of the lazy river chatting about Zach's tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Tyler had found the story of the IED explosion that took Zach's leg off below the knee particularly fascinating. Now he found it fascinating that the terrorists had allowed him to put on his prosthetic leg, but not a shirt. In this dim light, his burn scars seemed somehow more prominent than they had in the full light of day. Both of them looked shaken.
Annie gripped Tyler's hand ever more tightly as they scaled the shallow steps that led to the upper pool area. It was entirely possible that her fingernails were drawing blood from his palm, but he didn't want to complain.
"There are no children," Annie whispered.
Tyler didn't know what she meant at first, but then he saw it, too. The Turners had eleven-year-old twin boys, but they were nowhere to be seen. Ditto the two girls who belonged to the Severances.
Annie's grip tightened even more. "You don't think they —"
"No," Tyler said, cutting her off before she could say the unthinkable. "The parents aren't upset enough for that." He didn't know if that was true, but that was his story and he was sticking to it.
At the top of the steps now, on the upper pool deck, their conductor said, "You can let go of each other now. If you can find a seat, take it. If you try to leave, you will be shot."
Tyler was happy to be shed of the sweaty guy's hand, but he was happy to keep hold of Annie's. Even if he'd wanted to let go of it, he didn't think she'd let him. "Let's grab a chair at the back, near the bathroom," he said. He didn't know why, exactly, but that seemed like a good place to be. Certainly, he didn't want to be in the front, where they would be most visible. The chairs near the restrooms offered them the added benefit of being near the bar and the back gate.
He didn't wait for an answer from Annie. Rather, he guided her past the pool's wheelchair ramp and toward the rank of chairs that nobody wanted during the day because they offered nearly full shade — the very opposite of why most people came to a resort like the Crystal Sands. The chaises he selected were constructed of the same canvas and heavy wood as all the hundreds of others, but theirs lay against one of the elaborate white ceramic planters that defined the outer perimeter of the pool area. Immediately beyond, toward the rear, lay the descending pathway that ultimately led to the garbage Dumpsters and the maintenance sheds for the golf carts, which toted guests from one end of the compound to another.
The flood of guest hostages continued to swell as sleep-deprived rich people arrived in their clusters of various sizes, each of them guarded by a team of riflemen.
"There are so many of them," Annie whispered. Her tone sounded like equal parts fear and awe.
Tyler assumed she was talking about the terrorists, not the guests, and he had to agree. These were some badass dudes. He had a horrible feeling in his stomach that people weren't going to take them seriously enough, and that more of the resort's guests were going to die before this ended — whatever the hell this was.CHAPTER 2
WHAT THE HELL IS THAT?
Jonathan Grave's eyes snapped open. He thought he'd heard gunshots, a quick burst of automatic-weapons fire, distant but distinctive. Perhaps he'd been dreaming, but —
There it was again, and it was definitely gunfire. A sustained burst this time, and accompanied by screams.
"Gail," he said. "Wake up. Something's wrong."
She lay with her head on his chest and was slow to respond.
"Come on, Gail. Wake up. Somebody's shooting." As he spoke, he slid out from under her, and she stirred.
At the third ripple of gunfire, she was wide-awake. As she sat up, the covers fell away from her breasts and she moved quickly to cover them. Jonathan shot to his feet and darted naked to the sliding glass door that served as their window onto the beach. Out beyond the glass and the low hedge that surrounded their patio, everything looked normal in the silver light of the moon. It cut a brilliant slice across the calm waters, only to be lost in the rolling luminescence of the waves breaking against the white sand.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Scorpion Strike"
Copyright © 2018 John Gilstrap, Inc..
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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