The heart and soul of Watkins’ thrillers, action adventures, and short stories are riveting struggles that carry the reader from Lake Tahoe to the deserts outside of Vegas, or from the wild mountains of Cambodia to the dark underground of rebels in American cities.
In the depths of conflicted minds in his Murder Option series Watkins reveals the thinking and decisions of people seeking justice by their own hands when the system fails them.
The Cool series, which features Marco Cruz, are fast-paced, action filled crime novels loaded with unexpected twists that will keep you reading well into the night.
All of Watkins’ work in fiction, no matter how wild the ride, challenges the core of human values in extreme circumstances.
THE MURDER OPTION
KILLING FREDDIE: A former friend surfaces with a video taken at a wild college party that two men have tried to forget about. The friend demands cash or he’ll go public with the video which will certainly send them to prison. Scared over the consequences, the two men plot a murder but sometimes murder doesn’t follow a preconceived plan.
KILLING HARRY: When a sociopath has gotten away with kidnapping, torturing and killing a young girl, a distraught mother seeks justice the one way she knows she can succeed.
KILLING CHARLIE: An abusive, ex-husband has killed a woman’s fiancé and threatens to kill her as well. She can run and hide, seek out a protector, or she can decide on the murder option.
Nine days after the funeral, holed up in her condo in South Park above the distant skyline of San Diego, the idea of having Charlie killed had taken a solid hold over Becca’s mind. With each day, it just grew stronger. Becca knew if she did nothing, she’d become a morbid, depressed recluse until he got her.
Finally, she climbed out of the dark retreat of shock, denial, anger, self-recrimination, and a growing paranoia and returned to the only option available to her. And then back to a reality she’d been denying for so long—who she really was and how that person, so fearful and so weak, had become a victim of her own fears. Becca knew…as Jess was dead, so was she.
I’m pathetic, she thought. I’m a weak, pathetic mess.
Getting drunk didn’t do a damn thing but leave misery in its wake. Xanax leveled the emotional insanity for a time but solved nothing. Sleeping with a gun that she didn’t really know how to use wasn’t much of an answer either. She knew the origin of her weaknesses came from the violence of her childhood but had never known how to deal with that. She’d just accepted it as who she was.
Unable to take it any longer, Becca decided to reach out. She’d refused at least a hundred unanswered calls. Avoided all social media. Had hidden away.
Because of Jess, she knew a lot about the military world in San Diego, both the visible world and the invisible world, and she decided to contact a woman she had met causally several times. Her name was Gail and she was the wife of a Navy officer stationed on Coronado. Jess had talked many times about her and her husband and how, if Becca was ever in any trouble and he wasn’t there to help, she was to go to Gail.
They met in a coffee shop two days later on Coronado. After some small talk, Becca explained her situation, which the woman was already familiar with, and then got right to the point.
“I need to stop my ex-husband before he fulfills his promise. Jess told me once, when he understood what the situation was with Charlie, that if something ever happened to him, and I needed help, you were the person I should contact. Jess said there are people who can handle what he called special problems. Military people who help each other.”
That’s how the conversations began. They went on for a few days. Becca sensed from their second meeting that Gail had people watching them, making sure Becca wasn’t going to get hit when they were together.
They met mostly in Coronado, walking the beach near the famed Coronado hotel or on the bay side near the park.
“Okay,” Gail told her after the fourth visit, “it’s very important that you understand what you want, and what you are willing to do. And, truly, you feel you have no hope at all that the system can help you?”
“No. None. Law enforcement can’t do anything other than put a stupid restraining order on him. He has to be taken care of outside the system.”
Gail met her gaze. “You need to understand up front that you will be required to be effectively involved in what is to take place. There’s no hero who’s just going to drop in and solve your problems. You need to be clear about that.”
“I am,” Becca said. “I’ve been down that road too many times to want to do it again.”
“I’ve talked with my husband, and he’s talking to people. You have to be willing not only to go way out of your comfort zone, but you may not be coming back there. You need to be ready.”
Becca nodded. “I have no comfort zone. I’ll do whatever I have to do.”
THE MURDER OPTION 2
KILLING COLONEL MAYER: The rape of an American female soldier while on duty in Afghanistan, and lack of response by her commanding officer, drove her to near suicide and destroyed her life until the day she decided to take her revenge.
KILLING SENATOR GREY: Two men with ruined, alcohol-ravaged lives embark on a journey to do one good deed before they die.
KILLING SUPERMAN: When big money moves into a distressed community and threatens to destroy a family ranch, it forces a reunion between estranged brothers who commit themselves to saving the ranch at any cost.
KILLING SENATOR GREY
“I’m no hero,” Evan said. It was five days after the event, after the statements, interrogation. Now he faced a national audience. He was the man who had risen to the occasion and killed the potential assassin, using the man’s own pistol.
“I really had to intervene, even as scared as I was,” Evan said in a protesting voice. “He had the handgun stuck in his belt, and I couldn’t let it happen. Not just that Senator Grey happens to be a very important politician, one of the few voices of reason in my opinion, but I just couldn’t let it happen. You sometimes have to rise above and beyond your normal self just for a moment. I’m not hero material. I just did what I had to do, which is refuse to witness the assassination this sick madman wanted me to watch. He kidnapped me for that purpose. He wanted to become famous.”
“Well, like it or not,” the CNN reporter said, “you took the risk, you grabbed that handgun, and you very easily could have been killed. You received two broken ribs when he swung the rifle around before you shot. In most people’s minds, that’s the act of a hero,” the CNN reporter said. “You prevented the killing of one of the most popular senators in America. Sorry, but you’ll just have to adjust. You can’t really hide from the label.”
Evan looked at the audience, imagined the millions watching on TV around the world, and understood perfectly well the label. And he knew exactly how to play it.
Play the narrative. “Everyone has a moment when they do the right thing. Believe me, I’ve had plenty of wrong-thing moments.”
It drew chuckles and nods.
“I’m this guy who went through a lot, got busted up pretty bad on assignment in Iraq. I went through rehab hell. Didn’t always do so well with the pain. It got the best of me for a long time. Pain killers and then alcohol. Maybe if marijuana had been legal—” Pause. Let the laughter fade. “But it wasn’t, and I got to be something of wreck. Ended up living on the street, then in a camper. One day, I’m sitting there on my lawn chair trying to relax a little when this guy comes up, points his pistol at me, and says ‘we’re going for a ride.’ I knew him from talking to him in a bar a couple nights before. He found out I was a journalist, or had been, and he wanted me to do his story.”
“Was there ever a time coming across the country when you might have escaped? Called the police?”
“Yes. More than once.”
“And you didn’t because?”
Evan paused. This was his big moment, when the narrative had to be the strongest. “If I told you I was too scared, that I didn’t think I would succeed, I would be lying. My thinking was that if I escaped, I’d never know who the target was. He wouldn’t tell me. Let me ask you. If you were a cop and some wasted drunk who looks like me came in and said, ‘Hey, officer, my friend stole my camper and he’s going to assassinate an important politician,’ and the cop, or detective, asks who the target is? Well, I don’t know the answer. The most likely outcome is I’d spend the night in jail or a mental ward, and the next day I’d find out a senator was dead. The truth is, I had to know. What I was going to do about it, that I didn’t know. It really seemed the only alternative. What happened to me, to be honest, is I thought of some guy telling some reporter he was going to kill John Lennon, or JFK, and did he want to be the ride-along? The witness to history. The idea that they’d choose not to . . . well, crazy at it might be, that was my thinking. I had no choice.”
THE MURDER OPTION 3
KILLING HOLLYWOOD: Matt Daniels walks out of prison exonerated for a murder he didn’t commit, but the former screenwriter wants his pound of flesh, until he’s offered the opportunity of a lifetime. Now he must choose between revenge or a Hollywood blockbuster.
KILLING GOD: Twenty-three years ago Madeline Perotti wanted Dickey Bernardo to make love to her. Now she wants him to kill for her.
When former screenwriter Matt Daniels walked out of Folsom Prison at 2:32 on Wednesday afternoon after four years, seven months, two weeks, three days and six hours of incarceration he felt the overwhelming joy of a man who, with the help of the Innocent Project, and the relentless determination of his brother, had finally been exonerated.
He emerged with two goals: to save his rapidly deteriorating father from drowning in whatever bottle of liquor he could find, and to get even with those who had set him up. The latter would happen very soon. He’d been planning his revenge for months with the help of a very powerful man inside.
The guard escorting him stopped at the gate and said, “You take care Matto, don’t be in a hurry to come back here, okay, my man?”
Matt Daniels smiled and shook hands with the guard. “Don’t worry, Horace, you won’t see me back here singing ‘The Folsom Prison Blues’ any time soon, that I guarantee.”
“You know what I’m saying. Lotta talk goin’ on in the block ‘bout you and Vincent. You got the raw end, but you know what they say about letting bygones and all that. We don’t want you back, Matto, not that we don’t like you.”
“Don’t worry,” Matt assured the six-six black security guard. “Take care. Be good to the boys.”
Horace gave him a short laugh. Horace was one of those stand-up prison guards everybody respected.
It’s over, Matt thought, still in shock. He was really free.
He smiled as he walked to freedom when he heard Horace, who had as deep a voice as Johnny Cash, singing a few lines from the most famous song in the prison’s history, performed live behind those walls in 1968 by the man himself:
“I hear the train a comin’
It’s rollin’ round the bend,
And I ain’t seen the sunshine
Since, I don’t know when”
“I see it today, and it sure is pretty,” Matt said, giving Horace a thumbs-up.
Matt left the prison that had once held the likes Charles Manson and the Hell’s Angel leader Sonny Barger. He was a mistaken guest and that would have nasty consequences for those who put him there.
He gave the walls of the prison a backhanded, over the shoulder final wave as he strolled around to Folsom State’s iconic museum parking lot where his brother was to pick him up.
THE GIRL ON THE GOLDEN ELEPHANT
Is she willing to risk her life to find the secrets that tormented her grandfather, a Vietnam veteran?
An adrenalin junkie war correspondent and her reluctant male guide seek the crash site of the last fixed wing CIA plane to escape Saigon nearly forty years ago—a plane carrying a dark secret and a 500 year old golden icon depicting the greatest female warrior in Indochinese history.
But they will soon find themselves on the run from two very powerful and dangerous men in this treacherous world of triple-canopy mountain jungle, unexploded bombs, bandits and poachers.
“You’re Porter Vale?”
“Yes, and you, madam, are all wet.”
Kiera allowed a faint smile, but she pulled it back quickly when he didn’t reciprocate, feeling a little disappointed. Under different circumstances she might have even openly flirted with the guy.
She said, trying not to sound apologetic, “I took an unanticipated swim in a rice paddy on my way in from the airport.”
“It’s the season for unanticipated swims,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s a private matter,” she said, giving the Aussie a glance. He opened his hands in a gesture of benign compliance, smiled and bowed out, giving Porter Vale a wry glance before he wandered over to join other Westerners farther down range, young men enthusiastically ridding the world of imaginary enemies with multiple bursts of automatic weapons.
“I came to Phnom Penh looking to hire your father.” Kiera paused as the Israelis near them opened up with their ubiquitous UZIs. “Apparently he’s no longer in business.”
“Pop’s off to Tahiti.”
“Retired. Following in the footsteps of Gauguin.”
He gave a little shrug. “Sunsets, beautiful beaches, half-naked young ladies and vast quantities of whatever’s on tap.”
“He any good as a painter?”
“He’s a man in perpetual search of the illusion of paradise, as are many of us. Painting is cover. What can I do for you?”
“You took over the business?”
“Just long enough to relinquish all its assets.”
He didn’t ask who she was so she offered. “I’m Kiera Hunter. I emailed your father several times over the past couple weeks. I didn’t get a reply.”
“He was busy closing down, packing, and under a lot of different pressures. He sent out notices. Apparently you were overlooked.”
Kiera nodded. “My laptop was stolen. That’s probably the reason. My grandfather, Neil Hunter, knew your father. I think they worked together once a long time ago.”
His gaze hadn’t budged a bit, still holding hers steady. Kiera waited, giving him room to elaborate. When he didn’t she figured it would be best to get right to the point, which was quickly becoming her only hope. “Would you be interested in one more job before you go off to do whatever you’re doing next?”
“What sort of job?”
“Hunting for a lost plane flown by my grandfather.”
He tipped his head a little and gave her a sardonic smile. “It’s the ‘one more’ that I’m afraid of. One last bank job. One last diamond heist. I never believed in the ‘one last’ concept that film people are so fascinated with. It’s my philosophy that if you’ve reached the ‘one last’ stage you’ve already gone too far. But there are plenty of guides—”
“No. There aren’t,” she said. “I’m not asking you to commit a crime.”
“I’m sorry you came all this way looking for my father. But he’s gone and the business is no more.” He crossed his arms and she watched a jaw muscle tighten like he was clenching his teeth.
“I need a guide to take me into the mountains of Laos north of a town called Attapeu near the Vietnamese border. It’ll take just a day or two and you’ll be very well paid.”
He studied her for a moment, as if maybe trying to assess whether she was asking the impossible. “You’re kidding, right? That is a crime…against sanity.” He shook his head.
“I have reasons why I need to do this now, whatever the risks. I can’t wait. Your father was about the only one my grandfather would trust with finding the plane he crashed nearly forty years ago. It was the last fixed wing CIA plane to leave Saigon before the fall.”
Porter Vale glanced off as if looking for a quick escape, then turned back to her. “What reasons are so compelling that you chose monsoon season to trek into the most remote and dangerous jungle in Southeast Asia?”
“They’re personal. It’s important and I want to do it now.” She took in a deep breath. Part of her wanted to tell him about the robberies, to trust him—he had that look about him, one that she hadn’t seen more than a few times in her life, a look that told her volumes. And she felt an unmistakable, visceral pull to the man that she couldn’t explain…or deny. She wanted to say that she didn’t think she was alone in this, but the smart, wary part of her sensed Porter Vale was looking for a way out and knowing that just might be the push he needed.
She’s the woman they couldn’t kill, and he couldn’t resist…
Former investigator, Sydney Jesup is on a one-woman crusade against the most powerful and dangerous mogul in Nevada. He’s a man whose powers stretch across the state, from Las Vegas to the mountain resort of Lake Tahoe, where he intends to create a new gambling mecca. But when an incompetent hit man attempts to kill Sydney in order to gain favor with the mogul, he botches the hit and all hell breaks loose.
To clean up the mess a pro is brought in from New York. He’s one of the top killers on the planet. His specialty is death-by-suicide. At first this seems like an easy job. That is until he discovers Sydney Jesup has come under the wing of Marco Cruz, a former border agent with his own dark history as a government operative.
Suddenly, the cool laid-back vacation resort in the Sierra’s starts turning up bodies . . . and the heat.
Sydney Jesup struggled to regroup. Moments ago, she’d been facing death and now found herself sitting in a very fast Shelby convertible driven by a wild-haired guy blowing through the Sierras.
“Thanks for picking me up,” she said.
“My pleasure. You don’t like hospitals or cops, and somebody wants you dead. I can’t wait to hear what’s going on,” the driver teased.
“Sorry about that.”
Sydney figured her good fortune was not merely being picked up by this guy, rather than being run over or shot by him. It was certainly a bonus that he had a very fast car and knew how to drive—all nice qualities, for sure—but she suspected he was more than just a guy on a nice Sunday drive. She watched him as he kept tracking their pursuer in the car’s mirrors without missing a beat on the squirrely road, yet could carry on conversation. He’s used to bad situations, she thought. It didn’t hurt he was nice looking in a rugged, unfinished sort of way.
How lucky can a should-be-dead girl get?
“You don’t date short, fat guys?”
He grinned with a head shake. “Maybe that’s why he wants to kill you.”
“Maybe. Fortunately, he was a lousy shot.”
“Good enough to get my car. And you look like he wasn’t totally off the mark with you.”
“You shoot a whole clip at thirty feet and you don’t get a kill, you’re in the wrong profession.”
“You have any idea who he is?”
“No. I have plenty of enemies. I’d have to check my Rolodex.”
Sydney tried to look behind them, holding her side, but it hurt too much and she turned back to using the side mirror…no sign of their pursuer.
“You don’t by any chance have a gun?” she asked.
“No.” He gave her a raised-eyebrow glance. “Not at the moment. Don’t worry—he won’t catch up. Who are you that somebody is trying so hard to take you out? I kinda need to know that while were together, even if it’s a short time. He knows my car. Red Shelby convertibles aren’t all that common.”
“Slow down a little,” she said. “Getting stopped by a sheriff or CHP won’t be a good scenario, and this area is something of a speed trap.”
“You have a background in law, the military, or crime?” he asked as he backed off the accelerator.
“Sheriff and DA’s office in South Lake,” she said. “Past tense. You from around the Tahoe area?”
“Reno. I have relatives up here. I haven’t been back in about seven years or so.”
“That and border, but now I’m a free multimillionaire in the making.”
“Temporarily,” he said. “Actually, I was on my way”—he took a sharp turn with race-car finesse—”to a job interview. You’re an unexpected diversion.”
“Sorry ‘bout that. It’s a risk when you pick up random chicks on the road.”
“I’ll try and remember that.”
They sailed up through the curves that led to the top of the mountain.
“I’m Marco Cruz,” he said, breaking the silence.
“Sydney Jesup. Thanks again. Listen, I know a place on the other side of the lake where you can drop me.”
“I’ll make a stop first,” he said. “I have a safe place where you can get your wounds cleaned and secured.”
“I really need to get across the lake. I have a doc friend who’ll deal with them.”
“Sorry,” he continued, “but I’m not running around the lake in daylight in this car with a shooter tracking me. Maybe he’s in contact with friends who are waiting on the lake side.”
She thought of arguing, but he was right to worry about that. If the source of the botched hit was coming from Incline Village, there could be five guys out there looking for them. This guy had all the qualities of the macho alpha-male types she usually bumped heads with, but in this case it was exactly what she needed.
COOL VENGEANCE (Coming Soon)
The professional killer was supposed to be dead.
Former soldier and government operative, Marco Cruz, thinks he’s finally rid of the professional killer and his crazy high-end hooker girlfriend, a couple that made Bonnie and Clyde look like amateurs. Now Marco can say goodbye to the madness in Tahoe and head to San Diego to start his new career with a military contractor force.
That is until former investigator, Sydney Jesup, calls him from Tahoe with bad news: The professional killer they thought was dead appears to be very much alive. This forces Marco to put his plans on hold and take care of the killer once and for all. But he quickly discovers he’s not dealing with a single, venomous snake, he’s dealing with a nest of them. And once again, bodies start piling up, people get kidnapped, and what looked like a simple operation races out of control.
Sydney Jesup had just returned from a meeting in which she was being asked to run for mayor of South Lake, a job she didn’t really want. But before she even got settled on the deck of the Tahoe City house she was housesitting, a call came in from Kora North, one of the last people on earth she wanted to talk to.
Sydney reluctantly answered. “What’s going on, Kora?”
“Sydney, is Marco with you? I need to talk to him.”
“No, he’s not. What’s up? Are you alright, Kora?”
“No, I’m not. Things are really messed up. It’s crazy.”
“What’s crazy?” Sydney asked, thinking, besides you.
“Leon, that miserable bastard, might be alive.”
Sydney sat down hard on a chair. She could hardly believe what Kora had just said.
“The bastard appears to have survived.”
“Kora, what are you talking about?”
“I think Leon survived. He’s killing people again. There’ve been suicides by two men who were my business partners. I could buy one of them, but not two.”
Sydney could hear the fear in Kora’s voice.
“Calm down. Take a breath. Where are you?”
“Standing in the desert where Leon’s body should be.”
“I need to talk to Marco. Please, don’t ask questions.”
“He’s not really available. He’s—”
“I’m not playing around, Sydney. I have the kind of information you don’t want leaked. All those files we took from Ogden and Rouse. Tell me where the fuck Marco is. I have to talk to him.”
“He’s in San Diego. He’s back in a professional mode. He might be going on a mission. I don’t think he’s available.”
“You have my number. Get a hold of him and have him call me right away. I don’t care what he’s involved in. I need help and I need it now.”
“You’re sober and this is real?”
“I’m sober as a fucking bullet . . . which I’m holding in my hand. A bullet that smashed into a Saint Christopher metal like the one that hung around that psychopath’s fucking neck.” She told Sydney all about the outrageous ring that had been delivered to her apartment in Vegas. “Get a hold of Marco and tell him to call me right away. Please, Sydney. It’s my life we’re talking about.”
“I’ll try and get a hold of him,” Sydney said, reeling from the news. “Try and stay calm and sane.”
A flush of fear crept over Sydney as the realization that Leon could be alive hit her right in the gut.
“Don’t try, Sydney, get a hold of him and do it fast. Have him call me. You have my number in case he doesn’t. I need to talk to him.”
“Okay, Kora, I’ll call him.”
After they hung up Sydney stared out at what she considered the most beautiful of scenes, a massive Lake snuggled down in pristine mountains, a pale-blue evening sky, and the smell of pine. All of that beauty made inconsequential by a single phone call.
The love of her life, Marco Cruz, was in San Diego in training for some mission with a very secretive ‘dark force’ contract organization and she was in no mood to involve him.
She poured herself a glass of wine, sat in her deck chair and thought about what to do. Kora was nuts. That was an indisputable fact. But Kora had some highly sought after files and millions of dollars, and that unstable girl could cause problems.
Sydney was so resistant to making the call that she first had to verify what Kora had said about the two suicides. She called a former colleague of hers who was working for the Las Vegas Review Journal, and he confirmed the suicides and the details. But far worse, he confirmed that these two men were forming a company with Pamela Harding and Kora North.
She called Marco and left him a message asking him to call her as soon as he could. She informed him that Leon, the man who killed Marco’s uncle, was probably still alive and was now going after Kora North.
BETTING ON DEATH
Facing the horrors of his past, an ex-cop must return to Vegas to solve a crime that just might get him killed.
Something shocking is going on in the 600 mile labyrinth of storm drains under Vegas; something former soldier and ex-Vegas cop Max Wolfe wants nothing to do with.
He’s out of the crime business and happily pursuing his inner Buddha on the beaches of Southern California until his new found tranquility is violently interrupted by a beautiful Vegas Showgirl and a hail of bullets.
Now Max has no choice but to get back in the game, a game that can only end in death.
Shaking off the memory, we went toward the concrete openings of the three shoulder-to-shoulder tunnels, each about fifteen feet wide and sixteen feet high. The mouth of hell, to me.
“This is, if Nando didn’t lie, the entrance to what the Mad Hatter and Cowboy call home,” I said.
I halted a moment. “I hate this. Tight, dark tunnels bring out my claustrophobia big time.”
“All tight dark tunnels?”
I glanced at the bad girl. She had that smirky grin on her pretty mouth. “Just those with concrete walls and spiders,” I added. “We need to find somebody who’ll go in and bring the Mad Hatter or Cowboy out.”
We were about to go in the center one when a haggard, disheveled, obviously stoned, partially clothed woman stumbled out of the left entrance.
She stood dazed a moment in front of a wall covered with graffiti. We stared at her and she focused now on us. She was a skinny wreck of a human being.
Somebody came out behind her, a pale, naked man, yelling, “You fucking crack whore, get back in here, damn you.”
He then saw us and stopped.
I produced my Glock and waved it. “Why don’t you and your little willy go on back in and get something on. You’re too ugly to be naked, even in the dark.”
He retreated, mumbling something about cops and crack whores.
The woman stared at us. Kayla said, “You wouldn’t happen to know where we can find the Mad Hatter or the guy they call the Cowboy?”
She studied us like we’d dropped in from Mars. Then she pointed to the center tunnel.
I said to the woman, “Why don’t you get on out of here.”
Instead, she decided she loved naked, fat, mini-dick men after all and followed loverboy back in into the tunnel. We could hear them yelling at each other.
“Love knows no reason or bounds,” I said.
“He was unpleasant sight, for sure,” Kayla added.
“It could have been worse. He could have been excited.”
“That would have traumatized me for life.”
“I doubt there would have been enough to traumatize you.”
“That’s precisely the point.”
“Well, let’s go find this guy,” I said with zero enthusiasm.
Will the neuroscientist turn against the super soldiers she created to stop their plot to overthrow of the American government?
In the years following America’s longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands of disaffected vets have vanished into an underground army organized by disgruntled generals who are intent on creating mass chaos, the first step to martial law and a reversal of what they see as the decline of America.
But something has gone terribly wrong with the chipset in the brains of their most enhanced warfighters and the generals and their collaborators need the person who first created the original template for the chipset brought to a secret medical facility to fix the problem.
Famed neuroscientist, Rainee Hall, is kidnapped by one of her former patients and soon learns the shocking truth about what happened to some of her patients who mysteriously disappeared from her advanced traumatic brain injury program.
When Rainee’s kidnapper discovers she was the surgeon who saved his life in Afghanistan it will trigger a connection between this former special ops warrior and his doctor that will change everything for him and his fellow elite, enhanced soldiers, forever.
Ocean breeze filled her lungs, the flow of blood, the predawn, the freedom did what she wanted.
Doctor Rainee Hall’s strong legs looped easily along a well-worn path on the bluff above the Pacific, moving to the cadence of her personally mixed soundtrack pulsing through her earbuds.
For the workaholic, and one of the premier neuroscientists in the world in rebuilding sub-damaged brain regions and neuromodulaton technologies, this was her regular predawn run, her ritual, enjoying this moment when she was alone in her world and away from her work, her obsession.
Her strong, conditioned legs ate up the trail as she jogged along the cliffs near the Scripps Institute in San Diego where she did much of her work with the study of brain injuries.
Nothing relaxed her as this morning ritual. It was her high, her meditation, her necessary endorphin fix and Zen where she escaped her work which, at the moment, was modeling the latest “brain dust” that was so powerful, so energy efficient, and so much a mimic of the brain, they could map the synaptic layout in biometric algorithms that promised an evolution of brain rehab with carbon-based cells.
Doctor Hall didn’t just love her work, it was her religion. It was, to her, the creation of the future. Her work, now well beyond stem-cell innovations, had done near-miraculous regenerative and enhancement salvation for so many soldiers with serious TBI. She had just returned from IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, where they were developing neurosynaptic chips that actually mimic carbon-based brain cells, an idea advanced by the great Dharmendra Modha.
Rainee, obsessed with the new lines of research, felt the future was coming at warp speed—even as the civilization seemed to be falling apart—at times echoing Einstein’s fears that technology was like putting an axe in the hands of a psychopath.
But she tried to stay away from that view. In her mind, technology was the salvation of man and the planet. She refused to take a negative view.
Now, bathed in a light sweat as she ran into the most precious time of the day—the evolving mystery of approaching dawn, with the soft slap of the sea below, her and the pelicans on their morning patrols—all was good.
Seneca tracked his prey, admiring her gait, her attitude, with that straight back, easy stride, as he moved through the trees, sliding along with her, his own stride light and easy through the sprawling eucalyptus, his body calm yet coiled tight as a big cat, the darkness slipping away, soon to be infused with morning light that would shrink his one normal pupil, not his left eye, which worked on a different modality.
He appreciated the target’s fluid grace as she jogged along the ragged rim of the Pacific, her body lithe, her strides emanating from long, muscled hamstrings and thighs, from firm buttocks. Women who could run, who were athletes, had a very nice way they kept their shoulders back. Men ran different—harder, more aggressive. His target was a very fine athletic female.
THE BIG BURN
She’ll need nerve, skill and courage to succeed where others have failed.
Raging wildfires on a Malaysian island have authorities calling in expert smoke jumper Anna Quick. Being recruited to extract a stranded party trapped in the inferno has Anna’s blood racing and her instincts on high alert. But the mission quickly blazes out of control when she discovers the “authorities” are the CIA, the stranded party is someone she knows and she’s been living an ugly lie. Anna’s desperate for answers, but as shocking revelations uncover bitter deceptions, she begins to see that the truth will set her free, but lies just might save her life….
Anna Quick felt a rude jolt when turbulence from an eighty-mile-per-hour gust of superheated air slammed violently into the jump plane. Her breathing was shallow from the tight constraint of the chest strap on the jump harness as she stared out the open door, the plane orbiting drunkenly over the raging inferno below.
A voice behind her said, “They’re somewhere in that gorge, but there’s no way out. Fires are moving in on both ends. It’s going to blow up.”
“How many people?”
“Four. College students on a backpacking trip. Two girls, two guys.”
Anna nodded. They would be scared out of their minds, desperately searching for a way out. Then they’d face the realization they weren’t getting out. Four college kids unequipped, unprepared. They would die the most horrible of deaths, screaming, choking, burning…
In the distance, two massive smoke columns broke through the inversion layer and shot hundreds of feet into the air. Tongues of fire snapped across the ridges and raced into the heavy brush and trees on the southern edge of the canyon.
The jump plane bucked again, with increased violence. The plane lurched sideways as updrafts of the ferocious, high-octane Santa Ana winds knocked them around as if they were a toy boat on a raging sea.
Anna’s face and nostrils and eyes were dry and tight. The roar of the wind blasting from the gorges grew thunderous as the gusts hurled smoke and flames across the horizon. She studied the orange tidal wave as it swept up the slope of the mountain to the south, ten miles from the mountain community of Big Bear. She noted the axiom that every twenty degrees in hill slope doubled the rate of speed the fire spread. The vicious whirlwinds and updrafts were being created by the fire itself.
Anna processed the variables that produced this disaster: fuel loading, clear-cutting, weather, topography. In a decade of firefighting she’d never seen anything to match this. Her boss said it was becoming another Yellowstone disaster.
“Not going to happen, Anna. Back away from the door. This is a no-go,” Carter yelled over the roar. “You can’t risk it. I won’t let you. There’s no way out of that canyon now.”
There’s always a way out, Anna thought. The fire would burn over this canyon very quickly and the worst of it would stay up on the ridges.
“I’m going in,” Anna insisted as she tightened her leg straps.
“The hell you are.”
Another huge fire swept down from the north, threatening to marry with the one below, forging a giant tsunami of flame. Smaller fires snaked aggressively along the ridges, and out as far as she could see more flare-ups triggered by flying embers burst across the hills.
Anna Quick’s team had been jumping small outback fires for twelve days. She was exhausted from slogging equipment up and down hills, digging, cutting, torching backfires. Behind her on the jump plane’s nylon seats sat her seven teammates, tired, dirty and in a stupor only firefighters know. All they wanted to do was go back to base camp and collapse.
Anna, a lifelong mountain climber and college soccer star, had formidable reserves that gave her, at the most competitive level, more endurance than any other male or female on the strike team, but this time even she’d overdrawn her account. She was functioning on nothing now but sheer willpower.
“Dammit, Anna,” Carter persisted, leaning in close over the roar of the engine, both of them holding on to the door frame for support against the slipstream and turbulence. “It’s a no-go.”
She ignored him as she pulled on her helmet, snapped the chin strap, dropped the heavy wire-mesh mask over her face and pulled on her Nomex gloves.
Carter grabbed her shoulder. “Abort now! That’s an order!”
She stepped closer to the door, dropping into a sitting position with her legs out. She was going in light. She’d dumped all but the necessities into her PG bag and snapped it under the reserve chute on her belly. She had extra lightweight fire shields jammed into the nylon webbing of her Kevlar fire suit.
In the distance a superscooper dumped “mud” on the southern wall of fire. A futile gesture. Above the scooper she spotted a hovering chopper. Probably getting news footage, though it didn’t have the coloring of one of the news birds. It looked military.
Her eyes focused on the horizon, searching for markers. The backpackers, communicating by cell phone, were last reported to be in the narrow gorge below, hiding in a dry creek bed. The fire would overtake them in a half hour or less. The heat and smoke would kill them sooner.
She broke free of Carter’s grip, pulled her legs up, got her feet under her and launched herself before he could stop her. She rolled out into the dark, choking sky, hearing nothing now but her own jump count:
Jump-thousand. …now feeling the adrenal rush of the tumble into space, feet up, body twisting as she plunged.
Look-thousand. …seeing now the earth and sky somersaulting over one another, the plane slipping past like a quick hawk, then seeing the fire.
She grabbed the green rip cord. Windblown embers exploded against her mask.
Her hand ripped across her chest.
The quick drop, then the tug of the blossoming round of orange and white canopy was always a beautiful sight to a jumper. There were no tension knots at the corners, and the steering toggles were okay.
She pulled directly into the wind as tongues of fire leaped up at her. Her gut tightened, her nerves stretched taut. The full fury of the firestorm mocked her descent toward the dragon’s fiery mouth. It was starved for fuel, waiting to be fed.
At three hundred feet, she set up the brakes with the toggles halfway down, easing to her right, then left, reefing down on the toggles, maneuvering, deeper into the brakes, then full brakes as she zeroed in on her landing zone, a flat piece of ground.
Then, without notice, a sneaky backwind shooting up the canyon grabbed her.
She was in trouble.
Two thousand feet above the wildly gyrating smoke jumper, in an unmarked, Sikorsky SH-60 B Seahawk naval antiship chopper, John Brock held on to the frame of the open door with one hand. With the other he held binoculars, tracking the jumper’s descent through the smoke as he held on against the violent rocking and rolling.
He watched in dismay as the winds grabbed Anna Quick’s chute and drove her horizontally at great speed toward the slope and a stand of trees.
Behind Brock, a marine lieutenant was yelling on his satellite phone at some assistant to the director of Emergency Services at the California Emergency Control Center.
Through his headset Brock heard his chopper pilot declare, “That’s suicide.”
Brock had traveled twelve thousand miles to recruit Anna Quick. Wasted miles. He watched her vanish into the smoke. She was supposed to be on her way back to her base camp. Instead she was jumping into an inferno.
“She have any chance at all?” he asked.
The pilot said, “That’s up to Big Ernie.”
“Who the hell’s Big Ernie?”
“He’s the smoke jumper’s god of fire. You gotta play the cards he deals. And he’s a jokester.”
Brock wasn’t amused.
The marine lieutenant finished his conversation and moved over in the doorway next to Brock. Brock pulled back his headgear so he could hear the lieutenant.
“Sir, the strike-team boss ordered an abort. She disobeyed a direct order and went ahead and jumped.”
Brock nodded. That was consistent with the file they had on her. He swore softly to himself and continued to try to see something on the ground.
He said to the pilot, “Can you get this thing down there?”
“I can get it down. Getting it back out is the problem. Those Santa Ana winds are running sixty miles an hour down there. With low visibility and high winds the chances won’t be good.”
“I need that damn woman alive.”
“Sorry, sir,” the pilot said. “What you need is a miracle. The best I can do is to keep circling until the winds die down.”
Brock stared in frustration at the gathering fire-storm. He knew the pilot was right, that they’d have virtually no chance of getting to her and then getting out again.
The marine lieutenant said, “That’s got to be the worst way to die.”
Angry as he was at the woman’s defiant jump, Brock couldn’t help but admire her courage. As an operator with Delta Force, Brock had gone into his share of extreme-risk situations and he knew the kind of mind-set that it took. She had to know something about the conditions, something no one else was taking into account. Either that or she was suicidal. He hoped for the former. He hadn’t come all this way for a charred corpse.
All attempts by Anna to keep her direction, to lock in the topography, had been blown away, and now she was in the hands of the wind. A vicious gust spun her around and she had to fight the near collapse of her chute.
It was now a desperate battle to get it under control. She was using every bit of her upper-body strength to keep the chute oriented.
When Anna found a break in the smoke, she saw the fantastic spectacle of fire crowning the treetops at unbelievable speeds.
The superheated winds buffeted her. She was engulfed in smoke, and for the moment, completely lost sight of the ground.
When the smoke cleared enough for her to see, it was too late. She sailed into a hundred-foot-high tree snag, her feet smashing through the top branches. Anna stopped with a violent jerk. The pads and Kevlar were all that saved her from being impaled. She still wore deep scars on her body from one such landing and was happy to have the new, stronger protective gear.
The professional gambler may have played her last hand.
No one is better at exposing a cheat than professional gambler and sometimes government agent Bethany James. Now, posing as a glamorous high roller, she’ll use every trick she learned at Athena Academy to uncover a mob boss’s ugly sins…and his deadly secrets.
But when a daredevil with a tantalizing drawl calls her bluff, the stakes–and her heart rate–become much, much higher. Beth can’t help but wonder: Have the cards finally been stacked against her?
Beth told him about the day the police came to the shabby hotel where’d they’d been living. How she’d been taken to the morgue with this lady from social services to ID her father.
“I didn’t think they let twelve-year-old kids do that,” JD said.
“Nobody else to do it, I guess.”
“I have to admit something.” JD offered. “What you’ve been telling me just now is probably the first thing I’ve really believed about you.”
She smiled. “I was an orphan for a long time, but never a rich widow. I’ve been a card player since probably before I could walk. I’m often employed by people who’ve been cheated. Or by casinos who want to bust cheating crews.”
“What about this other thing you’re involved in? The blackmailer.”
“That I can’t tell you anything about and it’s much better, for your sake as well as mine, that we keep it that way. Ignorance is bliss when you’re dealing with this sort of thing.”
“You mean, when somebody hangs me off a fifty-story building by my feet and wants to know something, I’ll have nothing to tell them?”
“They’d drop you either way.”
They laughed easily with each other.
Beneath the talk about their pasts their eyes were having another conversation. In the afterglow of the kind of all-out intimacy they’d shared poolside, she was taking a step back to check out the nature of the thing that was her new relationship. Was it good or bad? Temporary passion, or did it have the potential to be something more?
She couldn’t answer that question.
She was good at quick character assessments. At least insofar as superficial traits. But JD was on another level. She always believed if you get involved you need to look for all the pitfalls or you’ll fall into one of them. She was sure it was as true for him. He wasn’t callow. He had substance. And she liked him. Maybe too much. What that meant was the big unknown.
Romance on the job was both inconvenient and dangerous