From #1 New York Times–bestselling author Catherine Coulter, the explosive new addition to the remarkable thriller series featuring Nicholas Drummond and Mike Caine.
FBI agent Nicholas Drummond and his partner, Mike Caine, are deep into an investigation of COE—Celebrants of the Earth—a violent group known for widespread bombings of power grids and oil refineries across the country. While investigating a tip from a civilian who’s overheard about a possible bombing plot, the Bayway Refinery in New Jersey explodes. Nicholas and Mike race to the scene and barely escape being killed by a secondary device.
Returning to the civilian’s home to continue their interrogation, they discover the tipster—and the FBI team left to guard him—dead. While Nicholas calls in the assassinations, COE strikes again, this time launching a cyber-attack on several major oil companies and draining their financial and intellectual assets.
But COE has been infiltrated by a deep-cover counterterrorism agent named Vanessa Grace. A bomb-making expert, Vanessa must leave COE and join forces with Nicholas and Mike to stop the organization’s devious plan to assassinate the President. But there’s an assassin on the loose who could tip the scales in COE’s favor, and no one knows his ultimate target, or who has contracted his services.
Working with the CIA, the Secret Service, Mossad, MI-5, and even Savich and Sherlock, Nicholas and his team put their lives on the line to prevent another conflagration—and save the President.
About the Author
Catherine Coulter is the author of the New York Times–bestselling FBI thrillers The Cove, The Maze, The Target, The Edge, Riptide, Hemlock Bay, Eleventh Hour, Blindside, Blowout, Point Blank, Double Take, TailSpin, KnockOut, Whiplash, Split Second, Backfire, Bombshell, and Power Play. She is also the author, with J. T. Ellison, of the New York Times–bestselling The Final Cut and The Lost Key, international thrillers featuring Nicholas Drummond. Coulter lives in Sausalito, California.
J. T. Ellison is the bestselling author of twelve critically acclaimed novels, including What Lies Behind and When Shadows Fall, and her work has been published in more than twenty countries. Her novel The Cold Room won the ITW Thriller Award for Best Paperback Original and Where All the Dead Lie was a RITA® Nominee for Best Romantic Suspense. She is also the coauthor of the New York Times bestsellers The Final Cut and The Lost Key. Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
Also by Catherine Coulter
1: Knight to F3
Monday: 11 p.m.–4 a.m.
2: Knight to F6
3: Pawn to C4
4: Pawn to G6
5: Knight to C3
6: Bishop to G7
7: Pawn to D4
9: Bishop to F4
10: Pawn to D5
11: Queen to B3
12: Pawn takes C4
13: Queen takes C4
14: Pawn to C6
15: Pawn to E4
16: Knight on B to D7
17: Rook to D1
18: Knight to B6
19: Queen to C5
20: Bishop to G4
21: Bishop to G5
22: Knight to A4
23: Queen to A3
Tuesday: 7 a.m.–2 p.m.
24: Knight takes C3
25: Pawn takes C3
26: Knight takes E4
27: Bishop takes E7
28: Queen to B6
29: Bishop to C4
30: Knight takes C3
31: Bishop to C5
32: Rook on F to E8 CHECK
33: King to F1
34: Bishop to E6
35: Bishop takes B6
36: Bishop takes C4 CHECK
37: King to G1
38: Knight to E2 CHECK
39: King to F1
40: Knight takes D4 CHECK
41: King to G1
42: Knight to E2 CHECK
43: King to F1
44: Knight to C3 CHECK
45: King to G1
46: Pawn takes B6
47: Queen to B4
48: Rook to A4
Tuesday: 2 p.m.–6 p.m.
49: Queen takes B6
50: Knight takes D1
51: Pawn to H3
52: Rook takes A2
53: King to H2
54: Knight takes F2
55: Rook to E1
56: Rook takes E1
Tuesday: 6 p.m.–Midnight
57: Queen to D8 CHECK
58: Bishop to F8
59: Knight takes E1
60: Bishop to D5
61: Knight to F3
62: Knight to E4
63: Queen to B8
64: Pawn to B5
Wednesday: 6 a.m.–Noon
65: Pawn to H4
66: Pawn to H5
67: Knight to E5
68: King to G7
69: King to G1
Wednesday: Noon–4 p.m.
70: Bishop to C5 CHECK
71: King to F1
72: Knight to G3 CHECK
73: King to E1
74: Bishop to B4 CHECK
Wednesday: 4 p.m.–Midnight
75: King to D1
76: Bishop to B3 CHECK
77: King to C1
78: Knight to E2 CHECK
79: King to B1
80: Knight to C3 CHECK
81: King to C1
Friday: 8 a.m.
82: Rook to C2 CHECKMATE
United States–Mexico Border
Three Months Ago
Zahir Damari watched the coyote turn to face the ragged band of Hondurans on the sloping Texas side of the Rio Grande. As the last Honduran climbed up the bank, pulled up by his father, Zahir saw hope now dawning on the dirty faces, saw the relief in their tired eyes at surviving the nightmare trip. They’d made it; they were in America.
The coyote, Miguel Gonzales, eyed them with contempt—nothing new in that, he’d treated this group with unveiled scorn since the beginning of their trek eight days before. Gonzales stuck out his hand to the leader of the group, an older man, a father of two younger sons. He waggled his fingers.
“Pagenme porque ustedes son unos miserables.”
He wanted the other half of the money owed. No, the thieving scum wanted more. Gonzales had upped the payoff. Zahir saw the Hondurans’ shock, their fear, saw them talking among themselves, voices rising.
Gonzales pulled a pistol, aimed it at the group, and held out his hand again.
Zahir smiled at Miguel Gonzales, a brutal man with stained teeth and black eyes that reflected Hell. He walked up to him, his hand outstretched with bills, and as the coyote grabbed them, Zahir stepped in quickly and gently slipped his stiletto into Gonzales’s filthy shirt. Gonzales didn’t make a sound because Zahir’s knife was always true. It slid under the breastbone, directly into the coyote’s heart. Gonzales simply looked up into Zahir’s face, dropped the pistol, fell on his side, and died in a mess of dry shrubs.
The Hondurans were frozen in place, too terrified and shocked to move. Zahir leaned down, pulled out his stiletto, cleaned it on Miguel’s filthy jeans. He calmly went through Miguel’s pockets, pulled out a big wad of bills, handed them to the young woman closest to him, and smiled.
“Buena suerte”—good luck—and he gave them a salute and walked away, toward El Paso, only three miles to the north.
The day was brutally hot, but he didn’t mind since he’d been raised in the worst desert heat imaginable.
In his shirt pocket was a small notebook filled with information and strategy from Hezbollah’s top enforcer, Hasan Hadawi, the Hammer, about a brilliant young scientist named Matthew Spenser, and how Zahir could use him to help him cut off two heads of the hydra. It made Zahir’s heart speed up to think about the actual doing of it, the awesome pleasure that would course through him when he’d succeeded.
Zahir knew most of the intel and strategy was from Hadawi’s Iranian master, Colonel Vahid Rahbar, openly committed to the obliteration of anyone who wasn’t a Shia, which would leave a small world population indeed.
Zahir knew Spenser and his small group were hiding near Lake Tahoe. Spenser, according to the Hammer, had gone off the rails years before when his family had been killed in London’s terrorist subway bombing in 2005. Now he led a small group called Celebrants of Earth, or COE, their goal to eliminate oil imports from the Middle East, but no murder, no casualties. The idiot ideologues. Until recently, Zahir knew the group had operated in Britain and Europe, blowing up only mid-sized oil refineries, small crap. But now they were here, in America, their message to the media after each bombing always the same:
No more oil from terrorist countries or you will pay the price.
Both the Colonel and the Hammer believed Spenser was an unsophisticated anti-Muslim zealot, and ripe for manipulation. Over the Hammer’s favorite gin and countless French Gauloises, he’d told Zahir to become Matthew Spenser’s best friend, his mentor, a man he would come to trust implicitly, a man he would follow. “You will gently mold and manipulate this fool’s penny-ante goals until they become your glorious ones”—that is, until Spenser became a murderer. Zahir knew it would be a challenge, but one he would win. He knew he wasn’t as smart as Spenser in science, but he was years beyond Spenser in strategy, planning, execution, and sheer balls. But unlike the bare-fisted Hammer, Zahir was never guilty of underestimating an opponent, or reducing him to faults and weaknesses and strengths. He knew when to use a hammer, when to use a simple lie.
It was over the Hammer’s fourth gin that he’d told Zahir with a snicker that Spenser might have a possible weakness—a woman named Vanessa, a beauty, late twenties, red hair, milk-white skin, and blue eyes, and the Hammer showed him a photo of her. She hardly fit the image of a wacko bomber, but the Hammer assured him she’d been building bombs with an Irish IRA git named Ian McGuire and his faction. Both groups hated what they saw as radical Islam’s encroachment into their world, and according to the Hammer, this common cause united them.
With another snicker, he told Zahir the woman and Spenser were probably lovers and his grin split his mouth wide enough to see the gold filling in his back molar. He suggested Zahir seduce Vanessa away from Spenser, but Zahir couldn’t figure out what that would gain him, certainly not Spenser’s trust and friendship. He would see.
But it was Iranian colonel Vahid Rahbar who’d told him his most important goal: to steal Spenser’s amazing invention, a bomb that looked like a gold fifty-cent piece, no larger, and, according to their sources, would be undetectable. Nearly perfected, they’d heard, and the minute it was perfected, he wanted it. The colonel had rubbed his hands together. “You, my friend, will light the fuse that will begin the war, then we will explode their cities, kill millions, and none of them will even know how it was done. Our casualties—it is nothing compared to what we will gain. When it is all over, we will rule the world.” Unspoken was Shia will arise from the ashes and control the earth’s destiny.
Zahir didn’t really care if Shia ran the world or if Buddha took over. His specialty would always be in demand.
Zahir whistled as he got into another stolen car, lifted from a side street in Reno. He would steal another car in a place named Incline Village, drive into the Sierras, and find Spenser.
He wondered which head of the hydra he’d manipulate Spenser into killing—the president or the vice president.
The game was about to begin.
KNIGHT TO F3
Grangemouth Refinery, Scotland
Four Months Ago
Vanessa was crouched down, staring into the night, her muscles tense and cramping in the night chill. It was her first job with Matthew, her first bomb built especially for him. It would work, she knew it would, but deep down she had doubts, and hated it. She shook her head, knowing she’d produce a lovely explosion for him as she watched for Ian and his boys. The Firth of Forth was to her left, salt and brine mingling with the sharp scent of unrefined oil.
The darkness was broken only by the lights of the refinery, always running, even after the sun went down. The lighted metal poles mingled with security lamps and boom lights to halo the bobbing headlamps on the workers’ helmets. The whole scene looked fantastical, a stage setting in an artificial gloom.
Vanessa looked at her watch. Five minutes to go. Ian was placing the bomb, and at his signal she should be the one to detonate it, but not this time. Matthew told her he was going to be the one to blow up the night sky.
Well, let him, if it gave him a kick. Or was it this particular refinery? Even though it was her job, she smiled at him as she handed over the trigger. It didn’t matter, she knew her baby would work just fine.
Vanessa didn’t yet understand him, but it was early days. She recognized his genius, his facility with ideas and each step they had to consider before moving ahead with his selected target. She also knew his amazing bomb wasn’t yet perfected. If it was, surely he’d want to test it.
She looked at her watch again, said aloud to Matthew, “Where is Ian? He should be out by now. The security guard will circle back around in thirty seconds. He’s cutting it too close.”
Matthew Spenser, the Bishop, a moniker he’d been given by Ian a long time before, because, as Ian had explained to her, he’d learned that Matthew existed in a master’s chess realm that was always ten moves ahead of everyone else, and so didn’t he deserve the name? Why not King? she wondered, but didn’t say anything. Matthew was tall, lean, and hyper, sharp as a poised knife, he liked to think. She felt the excitement coming off him in waves. He was about to score another win.
He said to Vanessa, “Ian’s never failed me. He’ll be along. He knows what he’s doing.”
Three minutes now. They couldn’t use comms; radio frequencies could set off the bomb.
She saw movement by the perimeter, and her adrenaline spiked. No, it wasn’t Ian. Where was he? She felt gut-wrenching fear that something had gone wrong, that he’d been caught. Or, almost as bad, that she’d messed up and the bomb was somehow defective. Or, at the very worst, she’d been found out. No, she had to calm herself. Her beautiful, powerful Semtex bomb would work and Ian was a master at this; he’d get it set in place and get himself and their guys out of the plant. All would go well.
She let out her breath. Since her prints were all over the bomb and Ian always wore gloves, the message would be clear and received. Her bosses would know it was her group who’d blown up Grangemouth.
Matthew squeezed her arm, gave her a quick smile. “Your first bomb for me.” She could only nod. He felt to her like he was ready to jump out of his skin, or his brain, maybe both, but she felt it, too, this manic brew of emotions that roared through both of them. She wondered if in the aftermath of the explosion he would try to get her into bed, to celebrate scoring this victory by scoring her. She’d hold him off, waiting, waiting, trying to judge if she would have to go the sex route to find out what she needed to know.
She took one last look at her watch. “We’re out of time.”
“Vanessa, look there.”
Ian was running across the field toward them, his now-empty backpack flying like wings behind him, a crazy smile stretched across his face, three of their men behind him.
She put in her earplugs.
Matthew was watching her as he stuffed in his own earplugs. Then, without a word, he grinned down at her and handed her back the trigger with a flourish. “Have at it, Vanessa, have at it.”
Why had he changed his mind? What did it prove? Had he planned to see if she’d lose her nerve, not be able to detonate the bomb? Well, it hardly mattered.
Vanessa looked up at him as she depressed the trigger, a button on her cell phone.
A fraction of a second later, she felt the explosion. It started in the soles of her feet, pounded up her legs as the ground began to shake and an earsplitting roar tore through the silence. The night sky became day.
The concussion knocked both of them backward. They landed hard, their breath knocked out of them. When Vanessa managed to pull air into her lungs, she scrambled to her hands and knees, facing the heat of the blaze raging in the refinery. It looked like a bonfire on steroids, much stronger than she’d expected. She saw Ian and his men crouched down behind distant refinery trucks, did a quick head count. Everyone was accounted for.
So fast, all of it, so fast. The bomb had done its job, and she’d been its builder. She’d proven herself, established herself once and for all. Now she would be in with Matthew Spenser; now he had to accept her into his inner circle. After all, she was the one who’d engineered this marvel for him, and he would know there were more marvels to come. He had to trust her now.
He was screaming something at her, his voice wild, filled with alarm.
She couldn’t hear him, pulled out her earplugs, but it didn’t help much. The bomb’s concussion had deafened her.
Then he leaped on her, rolling on top of her, slapping at her head.
“Your hair is on fire!”
Her hair was on fire? She knew she should be panicked, she should freak out, but she didn’t move, and let him worry about it. Matthew jerked off his shirt and smothered her head in it.
When he pulled his shirt off her head, he stared down at her. “It’s only the ends of your hair. Are you all right?”
She stared up at him, smelling her burned hair, listening to the roaring flames, and she started to laugh. She rolled away from him and dropped her singed head to the scrubby, ancient land and laughed and laughed.
Matthew lay beside her, panting, watching her. He rolled up on one arm, raised his hand and fingered the ends of her burned hair. “Vanessa, are you all right?”
“Oh, yes, I’m perfect,” and she laughed again.
Ian, his dark hair coated in ash, his men behind him, appeared to their left. “What a blast that was, Van! Wasn’t expecting it to roar like a dragon. What are you two waiting for? It’s time to go. Coppers will be here in a flash. Van, what’d you do to your hair? I told you never to stand so close, and look what you’ve done.”
Vanessa stood, ran a hand over the crispy ends of her hair, brushed the dirt from her jeans. She looked at the two men—one dark, one light, both crazy like foxes, both grinning at her.
“Satisfied, Mr. Spenser?”
Matthew rose slowly, wiped off his hands on his jeans as she had, and smiled down at her. “Oh, yes,” he said, his voice filled with pleasure. “I’m more than satisfied.” And he stared down at her, at her mouth, his eyes hot and manic.
11 p.m.–4 a.m.
KNIGHT TO F6
Bayonne, New Jersey
FBI Special Agent Michaela Caine drove the black Crown Vic with one hand, tucked a hank of loose hair back into her ponytail with the other, then shoved up her glasses.
It was late and she was tired, ready to go home and crash. But no chance, since they’d gotten a credible tip off the hotline. She looked over at her partner, Special Agent Nicholas Drummond, tapping on a laptop balanced on his knees, doing a background check on their tipster.
She said, “I’m praying with all my might we’re not on a wild-goose chase and this guy isn’t a thrill chaser.”
Nicholas looked up. “I’m inclined to think he isn’t. Ben said the man was convinced he had information on COE, and a possible bombing. At this point, I’m willing to listen to anyone, even if it means missing one of Nigel’s dinners. He called me earlier, said it was prime rib.”
Mike laughed. “Oh, my, that sounds even better than the scrumptious three-day-old chicken salad sandwich I was planning to have at home.” She paused, then sighed. “We’ve been working this case for two weeks now, Nicholas, and gotten nowhere. I hate that. Several oil refineries out west and no leads. I only wish we could keep the frequent-flier miles earned from flying all over the country. And what do we have? This group’s mission statement, over and over, the same thing: No more oil from terrorist countries or you will pay the price.
“And now, out of nowhere, this guy pops up in our own backyard with information on COE? On a possible bombing? Do you really think this Hodges character is for real?”
He looked over at her. “My gut is starting to agree with my brain and say yes. You know what else? I think it’s also about time that we have our turn at bat.”
Baseball metaphor from a Brit? No, he probably meant cricket. Were you at bat in cricket? She didn’t know. She grinned. Either way, he was right, it was their turn, and if Hodges was for real, it was possible they’d have a chance for a home run.
Nicholas looked back at his laptop. “Mr. Hodges appears solid, an accountant for a local Bayonne engineering firm. His wife died three years ago, breast cancer.”
She took a left into an older residential neighborhood, thick with trees and small, well-manicured lawns. Mr. Richard Hodges’s house was on a quiet dead-end cul-de-sac that backed up to the Hudson River. To Nicholas, the block looked like any other older development in a small eastern American town—thirty-year-old single-story house, comfortably settled in with their neighbors. Amazing how quiet it was, considering its proximity to Manhattan. He supposed the lapping water dampened the sound.
They saw the curtains twitch.
Nicholas closed his laptop. “I see we’re expected.”
Mike turned off the engine. “Okay, I’m thinking positively. I’m up at bat and Mr. Hodges is going to give me a perfect pitch.”
The door opened before they had a chance to ring the bell. A man dressed in jeans and a white polo shirt waved them in and closed the door quietly behind them, as if he didn’t want to wake someone. A habit from when his wife was ill?
The interior of Mr. Hodges’s house was neat, looked clean, but it smelled musty, somehow sterile, and Mike doubted there’d been another woman living here since his wife’s death. She didn’t see any photos or knickknacks on any surface, only piles of newspapers and newsmagazines. The house, she realized, was now only a place where a lonely man lived off his memories.
“Mr. Hodges? I’m Agent Caine, and this is Agent Drummond. We were told you have some information about the terrorist group known as Celebrants of Earth, or COE, and a possible bombing.”
Hodges was a smallish man with a bald spot and a heavy five-o’clock shadow. He looked solid, calm, no indication that he was an alarmist or a wild-hair. Maybe they had finally caught their break. She smelled bacon and toast, a single man’s dinner. She felt a punch of pain for him.
“It’s nice to meet you,” he said. “Thank you for coming. Shall we sit? Can I get you coffee? I have some already brewed.”
“We wouldn’t say no to a cup, sir. Thank you.”
He gestured toward the kitchen.
Mike and Nicholas took a seat at an ancient table with one leg shorter than the others, held steady with a pile of magazines. Moments later, they both had mugs of coffee and a plate of chocolate-mint Girl Scout Cookies. Nicholas took one to be polite; they’d been floating around the office for the past few weeks and tasted like wax to him.
Nicholas sipped his coffee, then set the cup on the table. “So, Mr. Hodges, tell us what you know.”
Hodges blinked at him. “You’re British? I didn’t know people from England could be in the FBI. Are you some sort of special case?”
Mike nodded, grinning. “Yes, sir, he is indeed a special case.”
Nicholas sat forward. “My mother was American. The story, sir, please.”
Mr. Hodges nodded. “I was at the Dominion Bar tonight, having a drink after work. There was a man there—I don’t know his name, but I’ve seen him around before. He’s works at the Bayway Refinery—doing what, exactly, I don’t know. He’d obviously been drinking a while, looked pretty drunk to me, and I wondered why the bartender, that’s the owner, May Anne, hadn’t cut him off. He was shooting his mouth off, you know the kind of person, they get loud when they’ve had too much to drink and, well, lose all sense. I heard him tell his friend he was celebrating. He’d gotten a big payoff, a lot of money, and more to come, and he was going to retire and move to an island somewhere and have women in bikinis wait on him, and not take his wife and whiny kids with him.
“I thought that was a pretty crappy thing to say—I lost my Miriam three years ago and I miss her every day—and I didn’t want to listen to him, so I tried to tune him out. But he was sitting in the booth directly behind my stool, and I couldn’t help but hear. His friend asked where the money came from, and he shushed him and lowered his voice like drunks do, whispered real loud that he couldn’t tell, it was top secret. But something really big was going to go down, like what had happened to that oil refinery in Scotland a few months ago—Grangemouth, he said.
“His friend asked if he was breaking the law, and he started to laugh, sounded like a hyena, so drunk he couldn’t keep it together. I paid for my drinks and left, but all the way home I couldn’t help thinking about what he said. I knew this group COE claimed responsibility for the Scotland refinery bombing, they’d sent their statement to the news media, and it’s the same as the one they always use here in the U.S. And like I said, I knew this drunk guy worked at Bayway Refinery. That’s why I called your FBI tip line. Thank you for taking me seriously. Do you think this is a real threat?”
Mike felt the surge of adrenaline to her toes. This was it, the break they’d been waiting for. Nicholas was right, this could be their home run.
She knew Nicholas felt the same, but his voice was cool and calm. “If you would, Mr. Hodges, please run through it again for us. Every word you remember the man saying.”
Hodges repeated everything again, then remembered more at their questions, then gave them descriptions of the drunk man and his friend. When they knew the well was dry, Nicholas stood, clapped Hodges on the shoulder, and shook his hand.
“Thank you, sir, for calling us. We’ll let you know.”
Hodges walked them back to the front door. “You think this is serious, don’t you? He wasn’t bragging, he knows something is going to happen?”
Nicholas said, “We’re certainly going to check it out. We’ll know soon enough if it’s serious when we find the guy. So keep thinking about everything you heard and saw, and if you would, please, write it all down. Agent Caine and I will have a visit with the Dominion bartender, see if she knows the customer’s name as well as his friend’s.” He handed Mr. Hodges a card. “And please keep this to yourself.”
“I sure hope nothing happens. It would be a real problem if they blew up Bayway like they did Grangemouth. What would it do? Raise our oil prices some more? Burn down houses? Make the air we breathe toxic for a year?”
“We’ll do our best to see it doesn’t happen, Mr. Hodges,” Mike said. “Good night, and thank you again.”
Mike had her cell to her ear before they got in the Crown Vic. “Ben, we’ve got a real live lead on COE. You need to get a team of agents to Mr. Richard Hodges’s house in Bayonne.” She gave him the address. “I’m also thinking it would be smart to get a sketch artist out here, too, in case we can’t get an ID on the drunk guy from the Dominion’s bartender. But the protection for him is the most important. Just a precaution, but it’d make me feel better.”
Ben was now as hyped as they were. “Come on, Mike, what did the guy tell you?”
“Not good, Ben. There may be a bombing at Bayway.”
PAWN TO C4
Mike pulled in across from the Dominion Bar on Broadway in Bayonne, not five minutes from Mr. Hodges’s house.
Nicholas checked out the cozy-looking neighborhood bar, heard no wild yells, no blaring music. “Maybe they have food. A pizza would be good. I’m ready to chew off my arm at the elbow.”
“If they don’t, there’s a pizza place next door that’s still got its lights on. We can get a slice.”
“A slice? You’re talking like a girl. I want a whole pie all to myself. I’ll bet you could eat a whole pie, too.”
He was right about that. “Bartender first, then stomachs.”
Inside, the Dominion Bar was all dark wood, dim lights, and a long varnished copper bar with wine bottles lined up on shelves along the mirrored wall. There were twenty stools and six booths. It was a place for local couples on dates, or people stopping in after work before heading home, or for widowed men to feel comfortable to have human contact, and Nicholas wondered: Did the drunk live in the neighborhood?
Mike read his mind. “Mr. Hodges said he’d seen the guy before, which means he’s a regular. Since this place isn’t a dive, I can’t imagine he’s a low-on-the-food-chain roughneck. Probably he’s at least a supervisor at Bayway, otherwise he wouldn’t fit in here.”
They walked through the large room, checking out the few remaining Monday-night customers. Mike checked everyone out. “I don’t see any guy here who remotely fits Mr. Hodges’s description. Or the guy’s friend.”
Mike showed her creds to the Dominion bartender, the owner, Mr. Hodges had told them, a tiny woman who looked like a middle-aged Peter Pan. She was wiping down the bar, humming an old Elton John tune under her breath. Over a healthy right breast was a nametag: May Anne.
Mike introduced both herself and Nicholas.
They saw instant alarm. “What’s the matter? I didn’t do anything, I promise. I own this place and I’ve never had any health violations, ever, and—”
“No,” Mike said over her. “We simply need information. Do you know a Mr. Richard Hodges?”
“Dicker? Well, yes, of course I do. He comes in most every night. He always has the house merlot, tells me how his day went, asks me how I’m doing, and then goes home to bacon sandwiches. It’s a shame about his wife; she was such a nice lady. Listen, I know Dicker wouldn’t have done anything, really—”
Nicholas lightly laid his hand on her arm. “No, Mr. Hodges is fine, he’s in no trouble. He was here earlier tonight?”
“Yes, he was. Is he okay? Has something happened to him?”
“No, no, he’s fine, May Anne. We need your help. Now, we need to know if you remember a man who was sitting right behind Mr. Hodges, in a booth, a very drunk man. Tall, on the thin side, grayish hair, middle-aged—”
“Oh, yeah, that’s our local idiot, Larry Reeves.” May Anne rolled her eyes. “God sent him to punish me, I know it. He doesn’t even live in the neighborhood, but he comes here maybe twice, three times a week. He’s always pushing the limits on the weekends, drives me nuts. I was about to cut him off tonight when his friend took him out to drive him to Bayway; that’s where he works. It was odd, though, because I’ve never known Larry to get that drunk before his shift, and here he is a night supervisor. Why? What’s the fool done?”
Nicholas’s heart revved. “You said he was going on shift?”
“Yes, he’s third shift, a supervisor, like I told you. But you know, I think his friend had to take him home first, to shower and sober up. No way he could show up in that condition.”
Mike leaned over the bar. “Do you know his friend’s name?”
“Can’t say I do, he’s fairly new to the bar. Does he live in the neighborhood? I can ask Clem, he’s back cleaning up in the kitchen. He knows everything about everybody.” May Anne turned and called out, “Clem, please come out a minute. I need you!”
The floor started to shake, rippling in waves, like an earthquake, and a muffled roar filled the bar. Nicholas’s mind registered explosion before he hit the floor, pulling Mike beneath him. He yelled, “Everyone get down!”
Bottles shimmied and dropped, glasses and bottles skidded off tables and crashed to the floor to shatter, spewing glass everywhere. The windows flexed and burst, sending shards of glass hurtling through the air. May Anne was grabbing bottles as they toppled, but it was a lost cause. The few customers were yelling, diving for cover, hands over their heads. Nicholas felt a shard of glass slice into the back of his hand. He realized Mike was struggling to get out from under him.
The shuddering stopped.
“Get off me, Nicholas, get off. What blew up?” But she knew it had to be the Bayway Refinery, as Nicholas did.
He rolled off her, yelled, “Is everyone okay?”
People started to stand, all of them clearly shaken. May Anne came out from behind the bar to help brush off her customers, soothing them as best she could. As Mike and Nicholas ran out of the bar, she heard May Anne yell, “Everyone, calm down. You’re all okay. I’ve got insurance! Drinks are on the house!”
Mike and Nicholas rushed outside to hear car alarms, loud and piercing, and people shouting, pouring out of their homes, out of the pizza parlor. Glass littered the sidewalks. Nicholas jerked open the driver’s-side door and shouted, “We can help, Mike, hurry. You drive.”
Mike was turning the key in the ignition when their cells began to ring. She floored the Vic down the street as Nicholas answered his. It was their boss, Milo Zachery.
“Sir, is it the Bayway Refinery?”
“Yes, a huge explosion. No reports in yet, so I don’t have any idea how bad it is. Where are you and Agent Caine?”
“We’re nearby, sir. We’ll be on-site in five minutes. Listen, we met with a man who tipped the hotline.” Nicholas told him about Larry Reeves, gave Zachery the description Hodges had given them, found Reeves’s home address on his laptop, and read it off to Zachery. “Sir, we need agents to be on the lookout for him. There’s little doubt he’s involved in the bombing.”
“Got it,” Zachery said. “Report back as soon as you can. And don’t do anything stupid—that means heroic—either of you. Catch these guys.”
“Will do, sir.”
Mike drove fast over the Bayonne Bridge, past Newark Airport and into Elizabeth. They saw flames and black smoke visible from the tip of the island, lighting up the night sky like a huge torch. As they neared the refinery, they saw broken glass all over the sidewalks and streets, dozens of people crowded outside, staring toward the refinery. The flames made it bright as day.
It had taken Mike less than ten minutes to get to the refinery, and they spoke once the whole way. Mike said, “You know it’s COE, has to be.”
“Of course it was. Up until now, it’s been small stuff, refineries away from where people live, and the grids haven’t impacted too many people, either. But now they’ve upped the ante. This is a big leap, Mike. They’re now saying they can cause us grave hurt.”
Nicholas and Mike had taken over from a small task force that had gotten nowhere, until now. And they hadn’t been in time. Even with Hodges’s tip, their home-run break, they hadn’t been in time.
COE had to know there were people working in the refinery, and that meant injuries and deaths. Why had they suddenly become bona fide terrorists?
Nicholas stared at the swelling orange flames that were turning the air acrid and bitter, the thick billowing black smoke scorching the very air they sucked into their lungs.
This was going to be bad.
PAWN TO G6
Elizabeth, New Jersey
They arrived on scene along with most of the first responders. Mike speeded through the gates of the refinery, onto the long road leading to the huge converters, closer and closer to the fire. When the road ran out, blocked by a large chunk of metal, she pulled to a stop and flew out of the car, running toward the flames, Nicholas beside her, both dodging the debris still raining down. Nicholas grabbed her arm, jerked her back to him. He pulled off his leather jacket, ripped off his shirtsleeve, and wrapped it around her face. “Tie it tight.”
He ripped off the other sleeve and covered his own nose and mouth. Still, the choking black smoke seeped in, making them wheeze and cough. And then they were off. It was like running through a battlefield toward a wall of flames, he thought, as he shrugged his jacket back on. It wasn’t much protection, but some. Mike was wearing her motorcycle jacket, heavier than his, and that was good.
They sucked in their breaths and kept running. He heard Mike scream, “Over here, Nicholas!”
He changed course, dodging flying rubble, banging his hip against a concrete pylon, there to ensure the security of this place, only it hadn’t done any good. The bombers had gotten in despite all the safety precautions.
Nicholas saw a man pinned under a piece of the wreckage. His skin was deathly white and blood seeped from his legs, black in the night.
Nicholas moved behind the man, nodded to Mike. “One, two, three,” she yelled, and Nicholas pulled up the stinging hot metal, burning his hands, heaving with all his strength while Mike tugged the man clear. He dropped the metal back to the ground with a crash barely heard in the hellish chaos around them.
“Bloody hell.” He shook his hands, rubbed them together, wincing at the blisters that had popped up. He hadn’t thought to get gloves from the car’s boot, brain that he was.
“There’s another man over there!”
Nicholas saw a large chunk of metal sticking out of the man’s neck and the odd angle of his head. “He’s dead. Keep moving.”
Mike swallowed, nodded. They wound their way closer to the center of the blast site. The heat was incredible, the flames shooting madly into the night, singeing their arms and hair, but they kept moving, picking through the rubble, looking for survivors.
“Here’s one,” Nicholas shouted, and they dragged the man free, picked him up by arms and legs, and ran him back to where firemen had set up a protected space for the arriving EMTs to tend to the wounded.
They lost count of the men they’d carried back to the staging area. Finally a firefighter stepped in their way, hands up.
“Hey. Stop, both of you. I don’t know who you are, but you don’t have the right equipment. Get back away from here, now. I don’t want the two of you hurt as well.”
Mike shouldered her way past him. “These men are going to die if we don’t get back in there. Help us or get out of the way.”
The firefighter opened his mouth to yell at her when Nicholas grabbed his arm, saw his name on his jacket. J. JONES. “Don’t bother, mate. She’s unstoppable. Come on, we could use your help. We’ll tell your supervisor you were escorting us. Move it, now.”
Without waiting to see what the man did, Nicholas ran after Mike into the flame-lit night.
Twenty minutes after the bomb went off, the scene looked like a Hieronymus Bosch nightmare scape. The air was still ripe with the scent of carnage, men stumbling from the converters, others slumped silent on the ground, bloody, groaning, so many others more seriously hurt and bleeding in the staging area. In that instant, this hell shot Nicholas back to a place more than three years before, in another part of the world, and the terrible mistakes made, and he felt a ferocious hit of pain and guilt.
The firefighter who’d tried to stop them, Jones, was at his elbow, pointing and shouting. Nicholas whirled round. He thought they’d cleared everyone in this quadrant. He couldn’t see any more bodies in the hellish light.
“What is it? I don’t see anyone.”
Jones yanked on his shoulder, pulled him backward, shouting, “No, look, over there. Bomb, bomb!” and Nicholas saw a black backpack on the ground, with wires sticking out of the top. His heart froze.
Mike was a good twenty feet in front of him. He sprinted to her, caught her, grabbed her hand, and dragged her as fast as he could away from the backpack into the darkness, yelling, “Secondary device, run, Mike, run!”
They ran toward Jones, who was still screaming at everyone to fall back, fall back.
The backpack exploded, and the world around them shattered.
KNIGHT TO C3
Nicholas barely had time to fling his arms up to protect his face before he was hurled backward to the ground, unconscious. A year, a day, moments, he didn’t know, but when he came to, he was lying facedown on the oily tarmac. He shook his head, pulled himself together. He saw Mike lying ten yards away, sprawled on her back, legs and arms flung out, Jones lying beside her. Neither of them was moving. He saw something dark and wet on the ground near Jones’s head—blood, yes, blood was the word he was looking for—and Mike still wasn’t moving. He tried to stand up but couldn’t, he had no balance.
He crawled to Mike, pressed his filthy fingers to the pulse in her neck. She was breathing, thank the good Lord.
He pulled her onto his lap and held her close, rocking her. “Come on, Mike, wake up, come on, sweetheart, you can do it.”
She began to moan low in her throat and he said over and over, “Come on, Mike, come back to me, you can do it. I’ve promised a dozen years of good works if you’ll be okay. Come on, Mike, wake up, do it now before I stroke out.” Finally, she twitched and opened her eyes. He looked into her beautiful blue eyes, now vague with confusion, and knew such relief he wanted to shout with it. He wondered if this was how she’d felt in Geneva, with him out cold on the ground, the building exploding behind him? Her glasses lay on the ground beside her, incredibly unbroken. He handed them to her, watched her shove them back on.
They’d both lost their shirtsleeve masks. Mike’s hair was sticking out in all directions. Her face was grimed with soot, but he could clearly see the big bruise on her cheek and the beginnings of a black eye.
Amazingly, she smiled up at him. He pressed his forehead to hers, knowing his heart was still pounding too fast, the fear still eating deep. “Tell me you’re okay. Promise me you’re okay.”
“Yes, don’t worry, Nicholas, I’m only battered a bit. You look pretty scary. Can you believe it? My glasses aren’t broken. You okay?”
He nodded. “But our savior, Jones, he doesn’t look good.”
Together they crawled to where Jones lay motionless. He was still, too still. Mike leaned close, said over her shoulder, “He’s breathing. He lost his hardhat, but he’s wearing his fireman’s jacket, it cushioned his fall.” Mike patted his face, ran her hands over his head, down over his shoulders, while Nicholas felt his arms and legs. She patted his face again. “Mr. Jones? Come on, wake up, tell me you’re okay.”
A few moments later his eyelids began to flutter, and he was back with them. “Wh-what’s happening?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Nicholas said as he pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket, amazingly still snowy white. “Here, your nose is bleeding.”
Mike sat back on her knees, watched Jones take a swipe at the blood. She said, “Hey, way to get out of the way, dude.”
He gave a ghost of a laugh. “Do I look as bad as you guys?”
“Probably worse,” Mike said. “You have blood smeared all over your face.”
“Feels like I busted my nose again. Weird, but it doesn’t hurt like the first time. You guys all right?” He sounded like he had a bad cold.
“Bumps and bruises,” Nicholas said. “Can you stand?”
They hauled him to his feet, all three clinging to one another for balance. Mike said, “You know the drill, keep pressure on your nose. What’s your name?”
That took him a minute, then he grinned. “Jimbo, everyone calls me Jimbo.”
“Okay, Jimbo,” Nicholas said. “I’m Nicholas and this is Mike. Let’s get you back to the EMTs.”
The scene behind them hadn’t worsened after the second blast. Since they’d been closest, and they were alive and nearly walking, it hadn’t been a very strong bomb. Nicholas thought back to the placement—the backpack had been lying on the ground out in the open, almost as if it had fallen off the wearer’s back. Perhaps it was the bomber’s and he’d been running away from the first blast.
Nicholas said, “This is curious. I mean, a second bomb—that’s the MO normally used by terrorist organizations to achieve maximum death tolls by taking out the first responders. What’s going on? COE has never pulled this trick before.”
“No, they haven’t.” Mike looked around at the devastation. “This makes no sense. If it’s COE and not a new wild-hair come to the party, they’ve changed their ways. Up until now, that second smaller bomb should have been the one and only one detonated, not that big honker first bomb. This is scary, Nicholas, really scary.”
A gaggle of firefighters was headed their way, shouting. Nicholas waved them off. They were fine, no reason to waste resources. Jimbo still had Nicholas’s wadded-up handkerchief pressed to his nose, was using his other hand to brush the dirt off his uniform.
Nicholas said, “Thanks for spotting the bag, Jimbo. You saved our lives.”
Jimbo Jones grinned, showing a mouth and teeth rimmed in blood. “Buy me a beer sometime, guys. Now, you two need to get out of here, to safety. Really, I’m okay now. You can leave the rest to us.” He started to hand Nicholas back the handkerchief, shook his head at himself, and jogged off in a drunken zigzag pattern to rejoin his company.
More fire trucks were arriving, a parade of red and white lights, sirens shrieking.
“How many fire companies do you think have been called, Mike?”
“I don’t know. Of course Bayway has their own resources for this type of emergency, but they need all the help they can get tonight. This explosion was certainly much bigger than anything Bayway’s people could handle alone.”
“Has an explosion on this massive a scale ever happened before here at Bayway?”
“There was a major explosion in 1970. For a while, everyone believed it was the work of revolutionaries, since the FBI received a call from a man who claimed to be a member of the United Socialist Revolutionary Front. His demand: release of political prisoners. The FBI dug deep, but it turned out to be an accident, not a bomb. Then a smaller explosion ripped through the refinery in ’79. Again, a suspected bomb, but it turned out to be another accident.” Mike looked around her. “But this wasn’t an accident. This was a huge purposeful hit.”
Nicholas tried to wipe off her face, but it didn’t do much good since his hands were black with soot. “COE designed this hit for maximum damage and disruption, and they didn’t give a crap about innocent lives.”
Her hand tightened on his arm. “We’ve done all we can, Nicholas. Let’s regroup and find these bastards.”
BISHOP TO G7
They made their way toward the car, feeling like salmon swimming upstream with all the rescue personnel and cops and firefighters rushing toward the scene.
Nicholas said, “I wonder how COE managed to pull this off—a bombing in our own backyard, at one of the most secure refineries in the country, under close scrutiny and additional security.”
Mike was feeling pain in every inch of her body, screaming at her for aspirin or something much stronger, but she ignored it, no choice. “That first bomb was so powerful, why bother with the small secondary bomb? And no deaths before, but now I’m afraid to know how many people died tonight. Why have they done this? Nicholas, we need to track down Larry Reeves right away, open him up like a can, find out who paid him the big bucks.”
The farther they were from the blast site, the better the air became. She stopped, sucked in deeply. “I hadn’t realized—Nicholas, if Mr. Hodges hadn’t called us—”
“Then more people would have died, so we did some good, Mike. You know, it strikes me as odd—sneaking someone into this facility is certainly doable, if one were properly motivated, but still very risky for Reeves. How could a man so drunk he staggered out of the bar manage to pull it off?”
“Well, it doesn’t sound like he was faking being drunk—I mean, flapping his mouth like that—sounds like he gave his COE contact access before his little celebration party with his buddy.” She shook her head. “Still, what a moron, shooting off his mouth for anyone to hear. Good for us, though.”
Nicholas looked up at the video cameras on the light poles. Several had been blown off their mountings and were hanging by their wires. “Ah, there are a couple of good ones, thank the good Lord.” He pointed them out to Mike. “Here’s hoping they still function after the blast and we’ll have enough footage to recover.”
“Good eyes, Nicholas. I’ll get Gray Wharton on it. Digits crossed the blast didn’t knock out the connections.”
She put her phone to her ear as she walked. Nicholas paused for a moment, looking back, and he sent up a prayer of thanks that he and Mike were both unharmed, a prayer for the health and happiness of Mr. Hodges, and a prayer to mourn the men who hadn’t made it.
At the car, Mike reached in for her bag, drew out a wad of hand wipes, started scrubbing at her face, making comical streaks in the black. Nicholas took one from her, swiped it over his own face, felt the grit and dirt and whatever else pebble beneath the wipe. He breathed in the scent of antiseptic mingled with blood and death and acrid smoke. A nightmare, and they’d been in the middle of it, playing with death. Too late—they’d been too late to stop it.
He leaned against the car and watched the orange flames funnel into the night sky, still ferocious and lethal, and he wondered when the firemen would manage to finally kill it. He hoped by morning. Then all the experts could get closer, find the ignition point, find the elements that could lead them to the bomb maker.
“Too bad we can’t summon a bloody hard rain to come down and help.”
Mike said, “With all the oil on fire now, it wouldn’t help much.”
“Have I ever told you about the fire in Farrow-on-Grey?”
“You haven’t. When was it? Was anyone hurt? I can’t imagine your lovely home damaged. Breaks my heart.”
“It was the town itself, not Old Farrow Hall. It happened in 1765, nearly one hundred years after the great fire destroyed London. Our fire damaged many of the buildings, but the town was spared because of several quick-thinking young lads who’d been playing whist in The Drunken Goose. There used to be a large lake on the grounds of Old Farrow Hall, where the gardens are today. Family lore says they emptied the lake to save the town.”
“I assume one of the quick thinkers was the Baron de Vesci at the time?”
He smiled. “The third Baron, yes. Colin Drummond. He quickly organized the whole town—women and children, too—into a fire brigade. They saved the church and the pub, and the lower two-thirds of the town.”
“So you’re telling me firefighting’s in your blood?”
He coughed out a laugh. “Apparently I am.”
She cleared her throat. It hurt, hurt deep. She was quiet for a moment. “Nicholas, our information was that COE had threatened to take out Rodeo San Francisco next, not Bayway.”
“For whatever reason they changed their minds. You know what? I think they’ve made a big mistake coming to New York. Now they’re here on our turf and shoving their god-awful destruction right in our faces. They’re going to regret ever screwing with the FBI.”
“I agree, Agent Drummond.” SAC Milo Zachery walked out of the night. They hadn’t heard him drive up over all the noise—helicopter rotors and car alarms and the shrieks and calls of the first responders and the roar of the fire. Mike realized he was nearly shouting to be heard, supposed she and Nicholas had been shouting at each other as well. The flames outlined Zachery in an orange mantle.
“Sir.” Nicholas pushed off the car, stuck out his hand, realized it was burned and black with soot, and shrugged.
Zachery’s voice was flat and angry. “We went to talk to Larry Reeves. Seems someone beat us to him.”
PAWN TO D4
Near the Bayway Refinery
From atop a nearby hill, Vanessa stood rigid, numb and disbelieving, as she watched the Bayway Refinery burn. When the tenth ambulance left the facility without its lights and sirens, signaling it was carrying another dead body, she fell to her knees, dropping her ATN NVG7 night-vision monocular to her chest, hugging herself. She had to get it together, had to.
Her Semtex hadn’t done this. The small second explosion, that had been her bomb. She didn’t want to believe what she was seeing, but the horrific flames, the shouts, the screams were all too real.
No deaths. That was her rule, Matthew’s rule. No deaths.
Well, it had been Matthew’s rule until tonight. Now they had blood on their hands, real blood. She wanted to scream with grief, with fury. She heard her uncle’s voice telling her, “Nessa, don’t blame yourself, sometimes things will simply be out of your control, awful things that you’ll simply have to learn to live with. Follow your training, Nessa, you won’t go wrong, not in the end.”
But these were innocent people’s lives, no way around it. However could she learn to live with that?
And she knew what it meant: Matthew had perfected his small gold-coin bombs and used a tiny part of one as a test. Thank heaven he hadn’t used an entire gold coin, it would have wiped out countless thousands and reduced the landscape to rubble.
She knew to her gut it was Darius who’d kept after Matthew to finish perfecting his bomb, Darius who’d decided to test it tonight. It hadn’t taken her long to recognize Darius for what he was—a born soulless killer who didn’t care how many people died. But this time she knew he’d had a reason. To see for himself how powerful Matthew’s new bombs were because he wanted them for himself.
She breathed deeply, again and again, until she calmed. She wondered what Matthew was thinking as he looked out over the killing field and knew it was his creation that had brought it about. Was he as horrified as she was, or was he with Darius, and very likely smiling and nodding at the success of his bomb? All the deaths. And it was up to her to stop both of them.
She rolled over onto her stomach and raised the monocular again. She’d been watching the two civilians. Now they’d been joined by another man, and she realized who they were. Not civilians, no, they were FBI.
Over the past two weeks, she’d memorized files on all the FBI players. The older man was Milo Zachery, head of the Criminal Investigative Division for the New York Field Office. The younger, taller one was that Brit, Nicholas Drummond. Of course she recognized the woman who could double as a biker chick in her black boots and black-framed glasses—Michaela Caine. She’d watched them on the news after they’d helped stop a nuclear attack in Europe. Of course, even without the media flood, Vanessa would recognize Mike Caine. Even back in the day, Vanessa remembered her as a burning light, smart, funny, unforgettable.
Of all the people she didn’t want to see, these two were at the top of the list, but here they were—not more than a hundred meters away, witnesses to the horror that her group had brought about. And here she lay, one of the anonymous deathmongers. And how would she ever learn to live with that?
She remembered the Matthew Spenser she’d met only a little more than four months before. That Matthew hadn’t believed in collateral damage, had abhorred the thought of killing anyone, accidently or on purpose. He’d been gaining more and more attention from the small-scale bombings, as he wanted. And then Darius had come, dumped a million dollars in his lap, and begun manipulating him, changing him. And now this. She knew Darius—or whatever his name was—had a plan, and now he’d sucked Matthew, sucked all of them, into it, made them all murderers, made them all—terrorists. Didn’t Matthew realize he was now no better than the terrorists who’d killed his family?
What People are Saying About This
Praise for THE LOST KEY
“This engaging and suspenseful thriller will entertain readers with impossible nail-biting situations that are resolved by ingenious means. . . . James Bond fans and readers who like heart-stopping action, cutting-edge science, and technology puzzles are bound to reserve this title.” —Library Journal (starred review)
“Fast-moving technothriller that proves the collaboration of Coulter and Ellison to be a serendipitous one.” —Booklist
“A thriller packed with nonstop action, real-life name-dropping and enough cutting-edge science to make you wonder how much of it could be true.”
“Catherine Coulter never disappoints. . . . Nonstop action with enough realism to keep you thinking and scare the daylights out of you at the same time. . . . The Lost Key will expand your mind and imagination as it takes you on a thrill ride worthy of two such great writers.” —Suspense Magazine
“The authors’ sophisticated third-person narration smoothly propels the action to the exciting climax.” —Publishers Weekly
“A terrific follow-up to Coulter and Ellison’s previous novel, The Final Cut. The authors juggle marvelous action with stellar character development and intriguing history to spin another great tale. Both are excellent writers, but together, they are in another league.”—Associated Press