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Excerpt: The Kobalt Dossier by Eric Van Lustbader

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Evan Ryder is back in The Kobalt Dossier, the stunning follow-up to The Nemesis Manifesto from New York Times bestselling author Eric Van Lustbader.

After thwarting the violent, international, fascist syndicate known as Nemesis, Evan Ryder returns to Washington, D.C., to find her secret division of the DOD shut down and her deceased sister’s children missing. Now the target of a cabal of American billionaires who were among Nemesis’s supporters, Evan and her former boss, Ben Butler, must learn to work together as partners – and navigate their intricate past.

Their search will take them from Istanbul to Odessa to an ancient church deep within the Carpathian Mountains of Romania. And all along the way, an unimaginable enemy stalks in the shadows, an adversary whose secretive past will upend Evan’s entire world and everything she holds dear.

The Kobalt Dossier will be available on June 1, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


1

WASHINGTON, DC

PRESENT DAY

Benjamin Butler had made a mistake. A grave mistake. By Zoe’s determination, anyway. His daughter, eight years old going on sixteen, had made him promise that there would always be Oreos in the house. Because they just returned from a week at the Atlantis in Paradise Island, celebrating her eighth birthday, tonight there weren’t any, which was why Ben was trolling down the wide aisles of the Costco on Market Street NE, in DC with an impatient Zoe on his heels. It was almost 8 p.m.; they had just over thirty minutes to find and purchase the Oreos before the store closed for the night. He should have known where they were; he’d bought them often enough. But Costco had this annoying habit of moving displays around.

At last, after long minutes of hunting, Zoe spotted them midway down the snacks aisle.

“There, Dad! There they are!”

He pushed his cart after his sprinting daughter and caught up with her in front of a massive stack of the oversized blue boxes filled with thirty six-packs of the cookies Zoe loved so much. He grabbed one, looked at her happy hungry face, and decided to make it two, so he wouldn’t have to think about buying them for weeks. As he turned to head for the register lines, he saw a suit standing at the end of the aisle. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw the suit’s twin—or near enough. Ben had been in the business of espionage long enough to recognize government bodyguards with a single glance. He could smell them too—a combination of cheap aftershave, cheap fabric, and sweat. No one was in the aisle save himself and Zoe. He prudently decided to shelter in place and let the situation reveal itself. He stood with his hands on the bar of his shopping cart, Zoe in front of him cradled between his arms, and waited.

A few seconds later, a new actor emerged from behind a display of M&M boxes the size of his chest. The no-neck monster Ben knew as General Ryan Aristides, his boss at DOD, who had proved himself a gutless wonder when Ben’s job and reputation were on the line several months ago. Instead of coming to Ben’s defense against Brady Thompson, the Secretary of Defense, he had stepped away, keeping himself clear of whatever fallout would ensue from Brady coming down on Ben’s head and on Ben’s clandestine shop. As it turned out Ben and Evan Ryder had been able to neutralize Thompson, uncovering evidence that he had been working for the Russians and turning him. As a double agent, he now delivered vital intel to Aristides while feeding disinformation to his erstwhile Russian masters.

The general’s big square face looked pale beneath the harsh blue-white overheads. He walked with a rolling gait, slightly bowlegged, result of his time aboard ships.

“Quite a sweet tooth you have there, Ben,” he said, pointing at the Oreos.

Ben. Aristides always called him Benjamin. Something was up. It was only then, as the general approached, that Ben realized Aristides was out of regs: he was in a shiny suit he might have worn to his daughter’s wedding.

“Zoe,” Ben said.

“Ah, yes, the lovely Zoe.”

The general should have been smiling, but he wasn’t. Anyone else would have said hello to the girl, asked how she was, but Aristides was busy looking at a display of gummy bears. “I hated these when I was a kid,” he said, his voice a basso rumble. “Disgusting stuff, don’t you think? All that sugar, just rots you from the inside out.” But it was clear he didn’t expect or want an answer. In fact, it wasn’t altogether clear whether he was speaking about gummy bears at all.

The general sighed, turned back to Ben. “I think it would be best if Zoe took a stroll around with Wilson here.” One of the suits stepped forward. He was young, fresh-faced, and, unlike his boss, was smiling at Zoe.

Ben took a short moment for a sit rep. Evaluating the situation wasn’t difficult; Aristides had given him little choice. He leaned over and put his mouth to Zoe’s ear. “How about it, kiddo? The general and I need to have a bit of a chin-wag.” He couched the request in as unintimidating terms as he could.

Zoe, who was both smart and used to the secretiveness of her father’s job, nodded. “Okey-doke.

“I’m not a child,” she said, slipping out from between her father and the shopping cart, ignoring Wilson’s extended hand, fixing him with her disconcertingly direct stare.

“My mistake.” Wilson scarcely missed a beat.

When the two of them were out of sight, Aristides cleared his throat. “Ben, I’m afraid I have bad news.”

Ben’s stomach dropped, as if he were in a fast descending elevator. “Let’s have it,” he said.

The general picked up an enormous bag of miniature Snickers, regarded it as if it were a crystal ball, then, almost angrily, shoved it back with its brethren. When he turned to Ben, his gaze was concentrated on a spot in the middle of Ben’s forehead.

He can’t look me in the eye, Ben thought, and braced himself as best he could.

Aristides heaved a sigh. His neck was bulging, threatening to burst out of its collar. “As of today, your shop is out of business.”

“Wait. What?” Ben couldn’t believe what he just heard. “You can’t be serious.”

“Everyone but Evan has already been reassigned.”

“After we delivered Thompson as a double agent? The Secretary of Defense? The biggest espionage coup in ” Ben shook his head. “How

is this possible?”

“You delivered Thompson to me, personally. No one else knows we compromised him and to protect him that’s the way it needs to remain.”

“I understand. Of course I do. But still—”

“Listen to me, Ben. First, POTUS doesn’t care for your agents being female.” Aristides began to count on his fingers. “Second, you lost control of one of them, Brenda Myers. She went rogue and killed a civilian. Third, your shop’s incursion on foreign soil and its messy aftermath have made you and Ryder some extremely dangerous enemies here at home— billionaires with the wherewithal and power to influence POTUS.”

Ben grunted in disgust. “General, with all due respect, you still need me, need my shop. These people aren’t done. Samuel Wainwright Wells is right at the heart of the same evangelical conservative cabal that’s been funding Nemesis’s neo-Nazi arm here in America. That’s the right wing’s plan, meld their brand of conservatism with white supremacy. He’s their top dog. I’ve got my eye on him, with his people spewing their evangelical racism through the TV and radio stations he owns.”

“Undoubtedly. Nevertheless, Ben, these evangelical conservatives have POTUS’s ear. Wells’s Super PAC played a major role in his election. Ever since Wells married his third wife, the former Lucinda Horvat, just over a year ago, he’s been even more seriously into the evangelicals.”

Ben shook his head. “Right. They had a low-key wedding at the DC hotel owned by one of POTUS’s companies. I heard he offered the hotel gratis—as a wedding present.”

Aristides nodded. “Tight guest list—an echelon of his compadres, but none of her family; they’re all dead. Probably because Lucinda is in her late twenties, the marriage caused something of a ripple in the mainstream press.”

“Which set off the usual backlash in the right-wing media. And even they weren’t allowed to take photos.”

The general nodded. “Wells is notoriously reclusive, so there wasn’t much of a story for the press to latch onto. And, of course, Wells’s own virulently right-wing media network ignored the age difference altogether. In any event, it took the new Mrs. Wells no time to climb into the Wellsian life. By all accounts he’s content to have her be his mouthpiece. And POTUS seems enamored of her. She often leads his private prayer group. Word is, she also appears to be taking a more active role in Wells’s business affairs. She’s seen more often at high-level corporation meetings than he is.”

“Well, there you go. Their involvement in Nemesis is a logical conclusion, General. Even you can see that.”

Aristides’s expression did not change. “All circumstantial, all conjecture. You have no proof, Ben. As far as we are concerned, the Wellses’ hands are clean.”

“Their hands are as dirty as they come.” Ben shook his head. “This is insane, General. I know it and you know it.” Ben realized that unconsciously he’d taken up a defensive stance:  feet  at  hip’s  width,  arms hanging at his sides, hands slightly curled. But it was no use— Aristides had already attacked him. He was rocked back on his heels. The ground had been scooped out from under him, and he was falling into an abyss.

“I wish it were, Ben, but facts are facts. This cabal of ultra-wealthy conservatives, whoever they are—”

“Who, not incidentally, are raping this country, following the game plan of the robber barons of the early 1900s.”

“Irrelevant to this discussion. What is relevant is that you thwarted them when you took down Nemesis,” Aristides continued, ignoring Ben’s furious outburst. “They’re not likely to forget that. They’re not used to losing.”

And this is the thanks I get, Ben thought. I get fucked while they get away scot-free. But he didn’t say it. Self-pity was not a trait Aristides could abide. Nevertheless, Ben felt the rage rise in him like bile, burning his stomach and throat, momentarily muting him.

He’d spent a decade in the field, facing innumerable forms of peril that placed him so close to death he could feel its icy heartbeat. He’d deliberately wrenched himself out of the field—a place he had come to view as home—in order to work himself up the intelligence ladder, and at last he’d been delivered his reward: his own black ops shop.

Now it was gone, vaporized with a cynical and self-serving command. “I’ve pulled some strings, dodged a couple of regs, to get you an extremely generous severance package.”

Ben’s lip curled. “Am I supposed to thank you for that?”

Aristides’s meaty shoulders rose, fell. “Either way, the money is yours. It’s in your account.”

“And that’s it?” Ben said with pointed belligerence.

“It’s a shitload of money,” Aristides said with equanimity. “What about Evan?”

“She has a choice. Either accept a reassignment to the Department of Energy or take severance.”

“The Department of fucking Energy? You must be joking. What is she going to do there?”

The general shrugged. “Politics, Ben.”

“You already know what her choice will be, General.”

Aristides nodded. “Money will hit her account tomorrow morning.” Aristides took another step closer. “A word of warning. These people,

they’ll never forget what you and Ryder did,” Aristides said in a raspy whisper. “They’ll never forget.”

Ben passed a hand across his forehead; it came away damp and clammy. He was grateful that Zoe couldn’t see him in this state. The general had done one thing, at least, to ease Ben’s pain—and it was no small thing.

But—” Aristides’s voice returned to its normal level. “Lemons, lemonade.”

Ben’s eyes narrowed. This was no time for word games. “Please.”

The general’s expression softened like taffy. Ben recognized genuine compassion in his eyes.

“Seen in a new light,” Aristides said, “this turn of events can be fortuitous.”

Ben goggled at him. A bitter laugh exploded out of his mouth. “In what multiverse?” He was incredulous.

“Yours.” Aristides spread his hands. “New start, new opportunities.

You were always a wizard at those.”

Aristides’s face was sallow, unhealthy-looking in the overhead illumination. Briefly, Ben wondered whether he looked as bad.

General Aristides glanced at his watch; their time was up. “Evan Ryder is the only one of your field assets currently out of the country,” he said. “Yes?”

Ben nodded.

“For her sake and yours get her the hell back here ASAP.”

Copyright © 2021 by Eric Van Lustbader

Pre-order The Kobalt Dossier—available on June 1, 2021!

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