Field of Valor
48 Hours Earlier
Falls Church, Virginia
Tuesday, 0800 EST
The right hook glanced off John Quick’s left jaw as he slipped the punch to the right, barely avoiding the full force behind it. Gotta move faster. He pushed his opponent’s arm with his left hand, hoping to expose the attacker’s right side. He stepped in to deliver a right hook to the body and was rewarded with . . . empty space.
The figure had spun around him in a whirl of motion, stopping adjacent to his right shoulder. John immediately knew he’d lost. This is going to hurt.
He felt a warm breath on the side of his neck, followed by, “Too slow. You keep exposing yourself.”
“Stop talking and—” he started to say in frustration, but his words were cut off as his attacker stepped fully behind him, back to back, and hooked his left arm, securing it. The attacker dropped to a knee and gained momentum, twisting and yanking John off his feet.
He found himself briefly staring at the fluorescent lighting, and
then he crashed to the ground, landing on his back. Before he could react, his attacker straddled him and pinned his arms to his sides with two lean, muscular legs.
John stared at the face of his attacker as he managed to yank his right arm from under the crushing force. Before he could do anything with his free hand, though, his opponent leaned in and pinned his right arm to the floor above his head.
Merciless blue eyes studied him from inches away. There was no quarter to be given. He thrust his hips upward, trying to buck the figure off, but his efforts only elicited a small smirk.
“Not so fast, tough guy,” a low voice said. “I’m not done with you yet.” The face was closer, looming large in his field of view, and he felt himself being scrutinized. Not again—this is getting old.
Mercifully, an instrumental version of the Marine Corps hymn started playing from John’s encrypted iPhone, and he reflexively glanced toward the sound. Realizing his mistake, he turned back . . . as warm lips suddenly closed on his, and he felt a rush of exhilaration course through his body like electricity as Amira Cerone kissed him hard.
John felt himself getting lost in the intense physical connection they shared, but just as quickly, Amira pulled away, and said, “Playtime’s over, babe. Time to work. It’s Logan.”
She rolled off of him and toward the phone, reaching it with such fluid grace that John couldn’t help but stare. A moment later, he found himself snatching the phone out of midair, even as he kept his eyes on Amira.
She smiled, and said, “You might want to take it.”
“You’re beautiful, you know,” John said, even as he pushed the accept button on the screen.
“You’re not too bad yourself,” Amira said as John put the phone to his ear.
Logan started talking, and John’s eyes followed Amira as she
walked across the rubber combatives floor she’d installed in her large penthouse, open-floor-plan apartment.
“I’ll be in the shower. Join me if you have time,” she added without looking back, as she pulled her black tank top off and moved toward the master bedroom.
John was captivated by her slender, muscular physique, and thought, There’s no hope for me.
His attention was brought back to the phone as Logan said, “We have a hit on the Recruiter.”
John’s mind effortlessly shifted gears at the mention of the name of one of Task Force Ares’ most sought-after high-value targets—the man who had recruited a contemptible human being named Jonathan Sommers into the world of treason and espionage. In addition to being the president’s former national security advisor, Sommers was also one of the most despicable traitors the country had been subjected to, even if the general population wasn’t aware of it.
Fortunately for the US, Jonathan Sommers had been betrayed by one of his own victims, Colin Davies, who’d set in place precautionary measures—out of habit, of all things—but who had no idea that the national security advisor was in fact an insider threat. As a result, he’d outlined the meetings he’d had with Sommers and placed the information in the Google Cloud. Those meetings had started the pursuit for the hijacked DARPA project ONERING, ultimately leading to Colin Davies’ violent death at the hands of a clandestine Russian special ops team. But in the end, Colin Davies had achieved his vengeance from beyond the grave.
Once the task force had returned from Sudan with the ONERING, the first order of business had been to kidnap Jonathan Sommers from his Georgetown home. Logan, John, Cole Matthews, and Amira Cerone—the core members of Task Force Ares—had executed the operation and then faked Sommers’ death with
assistance from DC’s chief medical examiner, whose brother coincidentally was a special agent and executive assistant to Jake Benson, the director of the FBI. More importantly, Jake Benson had been uncle to Deputy Director Mike Benson—longtime friend and brother-in-arms of Logan West—who’d been killed by the Chinese.
The faked death had been intended to send a message to the shadowy organization that was Jonathan Sommers’ real employer, hoping to draw them out into the light. While Sommers had languished away in a specially designed cell in the basement of Ares headquarters on Marine Corps Base Quantico—in violation of multiple major laws and statutes, although they all had presidential pardons protecting them—subject to nearly daily interrogation, the task force had waited . . . and waited.
While they gleaned a treasure trove of information and intelligence from the enthusiastic Sommers—names, contact information, and operational details for other members of his organization, which, as it turned out, was in fact called the Organization—nothing he provided was actionable, and they all knew it, including Sommers. It was tradecraft 101: the Organization had to assume he was either dead or compromised, which also meant everything he knew could be compromised. As a result, all those identities had likely changed within a day or two after Sommers had been removed from the playing field.
But something’s changed, or Logan wouldn’t be calling me.
“How?” John asked.
“Through the contact Sommers told us about at the Venezuelan embassy,” Logan said. “After Sommers gave us his list, we put all of them on tasking at every law enforcement agency and member of the Intelligence Community we could.”
“I remember how busy the FISA court was. The judges and government attorneys finally earned their keep,” John said, referring to the notorious Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court
responsible for issuing warrants against foreign agents inside all US borders. “We assumed all the intelligence he had would be dead ends. I can’t believe any member of their organization would keep the same mobile devices or computers.”
“Well, one Luis Silva, a member of the SEBIN, did,” Logan said, referring to the Bolivian National Intelligence Service. “NSA told Jake that Luis received a phone call yesterday morning on one of the mobile numbers, one he hadn’t utilized since we discovered it. The call originated from a landline in a Firehouse Subs shop in Fredericksburg. Jake sent two senior FBI agents with the Counterterrorism Division to talk to the owners of the restaurant. It turns out the phone was located near the front of the store next to the register. No one recalls anyone using it, and the store didn’t have any surveillance cameras.”
“So then how exactly did we find out about it?” John asked.
“Dumb luck. Turns out there’s a new bank under construction across the parking lot, and the construction company had installed cameras the day before in order to prevent vandalism. The agents said there was no way anyone walking in or out of the sub shop would’ve known about them, the way they were hidden and how far they were located from the shop. They talked to the foreman at the construction site and were able to review the camera’s footage.”
“Really?” John asked.
“Uh-huh,” Logan responded. “And guess which sonofabitch showed up on candid camera?”
“The Recruiter,” John said.
“Bingo. Based on the description we have from Sommers, there’s no doubt about it. Once they had the date-time stamp from the video, they provided it to Jake, who then asked NSA to search their databases for the call to Luis’ cell phone. Once they found it, they listened to the content, which turned out to be a twenty-second encoded message. Fortunately, NSA has some brilliant cryptographers,
and someone who used to work in South America in the eighties figured out that it was a Cuban cipher code used during the sixties in the Cold War,” Logan said.
“And I thought the only good thing to come out of Cuba was cigars,” John retorted.
“Funny—as in you’re not,” Logan said, and continued. “More importantly, the message was a time and location for a meet. And guess where and when it’s happening?”
“Logan, Amira just kicked my ass for the third time this week. I’m really not in the mood for guessing games, especially from you,” John said drily.
“Hey, I can’t help it if you can’t handle your woman,” Logan said good-naturedly.
“I’m going to tell her you said that.”
“You better not—I don’t want to be on her hit list,” Logan said, remembering how she’d aggressively interrogated—with a stiletto—a Chinese operative after Logan and Cole Matthews had been temporarily captured in Sudan six months ago.
“Fine. Just get to the point. Amira and I are supposed to be having lunch with her dad today, remember?”
“Damnit. That’s right,” Logan said. “I’m sorry, brother, but lunch is going to have to wait. The meet is set for thirteen hundred at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum near Dulles Airport. The Recruiter specified ‘Discovery,’ which could only be the space shuttle display.”
“That’s less than five hours from now,” John said.
“I know, and here’s the kicker: it’s a Tuesday afternoon, and schools are out for the summer. The head of security told us that it would be bustling with activity. So it’s straight-up civilian attire and concealed weapons.”
“Got it. I better let Amira know,” John said.
“And John, after what happened with Mike, don’t forget your
vest. Put it in your pack and bring it. You can put it on there. We shouldn’t need them, but there’s no fucking around with these guys, you understand me?”
“Absolutely—no taking chances. I got it. By the way, where do you want to meet? You know he could already have someone inside casing the place, right?” John stated.
“I know. It’s why Cole will be in as soon as the doors open at ten hundred. He’s as good as it gets when it comes to countersurveillance, and I’m sure he’ll enjoy showing off that stupid beard of his,” Logan added.
“Don’t be jealous of our Delta Force of one,” John said, mentioning Cole Matthews’ background as a Delta operator only to irritate Logan. “You can’t help it that you’re a pretty boy with those dashing looks and dreamy bright-green eyes of yours.”
“Jackass,” Logan said dismissively. “I’ll be in the security center on the lower floor, down the steps once you get through the initial security checkpoint. Be there by eleven thirty. When you and Amira get to screening, tell the guards who you are, and they’ll send you my way. Remember, these guys know who we are, but we don’t think they were able to identify Cole or Amira before we took Sommers out of play.”
“Understood. Now if you don’t mind, I’m going to go let Amira know our plans have changed, and I’m totally blaming you for it. See you soon,” John said, and hung up on his closest friend and ally.
Moments later, he knocked on the door to the bathroom loudly enough to be overheard above the sound of running water.
“What’s wrong with you?” he heard Amira say as he opened the door. “I told you to join me, didn’t I?” she added in mock exasperation.
John stared at her through the glass door, the steam from the shower concealing the details of her gorgeous physique yet somehow accentuating her beauty.
“We’ve got a problem, but not in a bad way. We’re going to have to cancel on your dad, though,” John said, delivering the bad news as quickly as possible.
“How is that not a bad thing?” Amira asked, staring at him intently. “You know how he is. He’s been expecting us since we had to cancel last week.” Her father, a retired DC homicide detective and widower, cherished the infrequent occasions he spent with his daughter. He knew who her real employer was, and he’d accepted the fact that her country unfortunately took top billing in these troubled times.
“I know, but it’s the Recruiter—he popped up, and he’s going to be at the Udvar-Hazy Air and Space Museum at thirteen hundred.”
At the mention of the target, Amira changed—a subtle hardening of her taut figure—and John could sense the tension increase across her frame. He smiled at her, waiting for a response.
Even though he was in his midforties, he epitomized rugged handsomeness, with short brown hair, defined features, and brown eyes that studied her. Suddenly he gave her his best puppy-dog impersonation and said, “But I could still join you. It’s the least I can get for getting knocked on my ass again.”
Amira didn’t immediately answer.
Finally, she said, “So you want to be rewarded for losing, is that it?”
“Whoa!” John said, and raised his hands. “I’m just doing my best millennial impersonation. Don’t hold it against me.”
“Cute,” Amira said, and then, “just get your ass in here. We don’t have much time.”
God knows I’ll take any time I can get, John thought as he took off his shirt and stepped toward the shower.