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Excerpt Reveal: Assassin’s Mark by Ward Larsen

Assassin's MarkUSA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen’s globe-trotting, hard-hitting assassin, David Slaton, returns for another breathless adventure, Assassin’s Mark.

With the help of CIA operative David Slaton, America has shaken off a series of high-tech attacks. Then, just as the threat seems to have receded, the most brazen strike of all: Marine One is brought down in the heart of the capital. The president survives the crash, but is clinging to life by a thread.

Once again, Slaton gets the call. With limitless backing from the CIA, the agency’s most lethal assassin is dispatched halfway around the world. But as his mission nears completion, he finds himself targeted by a talented adversary, a ruthless young assassin who moves like a ghost, and whose motives are unclear.

What is clear is that Trident is not yet finished, and that there is a high-level traitor in the U.S. government. And the only way forward is to topple a conspiracy in the uppermost echelons of Washington.

Assassin’s Mark will be available on November 28th, 2023. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

The iconic blue-and-white whale that was Air Force One coasted smoothly down the glidepath toward Joint Base Andrews. The skies over Maryland had cleared from an earlier overcast and the sun was poised on the western horizon, a fitting ending to a grueling day that had begun here twelve hours earlier.

President Elayne Cleveland stared vacantly out the oval window beside her. The great chrome-lipped engines reflected the last glimmers of daylight. The terrain below gained definition, small farms giving way to pocket neighborhoods as the city came nearer. In the gathering darkness, traffic on the distant Beltway necklaced the capital in red and white light

“At some point there has to be a sacrifice, and we all know who’s got the target on his back.”

Cleveland blinked. Her eyes came back inside. Reluctantly, she tried to process what her Chief of Staff, Ed Markowitz, had just said. He was sitting across from her in a plush aft-facing chair. After the long day he looked no different than he had at the outset, his usual wonkish self: rumpled tweed jacket, bifocals, unkempt hair, and of course the ever-present secure tablet computer. She wondered if Ed, even as a child, had ever gazed out a window and let his thoughts wander.

They’d departed Andrews at daybreak that morning, destined for a long-deferred tour of a new Kansas semiconductor plant. Bringing tech production back to America was one of the few areas on which the parties could agree. After that had been lunch with the governor of Iowa to promote a robotics research initiative. Altogether, it was a pathetic, and all too obvious, attempt at normalcy after weeks of relentless crises. At every stop the reporters had been ruthless, shouting questions that had nothing to do with silicon wafers or AI. Try as she might to lead the country forward, the recent series of attacks against American interests had become a political black hole, an inexorable force that dragged her away from anything productive.

The chain of disasters had begun six weeks ago, and was now referred to by the media as March Madness. First, an Air Force reconnaissance plane had crashed in the Arctic, the wreckage landing on Russian territory. Almost simultaneously, a Navy guided-missile destroyer had sunk in the Black Sea. Both tragedies occurred under suspicious circumstances, and both involved loss of life. Rumors swirled that Russia was responsible. As commander in chief, however, Cleveland could not retaliate based on rumors. She needed hard facts, and while intelligence reports left no doubt that the acts were intentional, attribution for them had proved harder to nail down. Worse yet, making public what they did know would be the world’s worst poker move. Which meant her only play was to duck the questions and promise “a full and thorough investigation” by the nation’s already embarrassed intelligence agencies. More attacks followed, putting America on the precipice of World War Three, yet Cleveland found herself mired in political quicksand, and with a window for action that was closing fast. She had so far managed to keep America out of a shooting war with Russia, but her poll numbers were dropping like a free-falling anvil.

“Thomas is a good man,” she replied, referring to CIA director Thomas Coltrane. “He’s done nothing to shake my faith.”

“I would never argue otherwise, but we were caught flatfooted. Our intelligence agencies are still drawing blanks. The perception is that they’re failing us in our time of need. America was attacked, and we can’t even figure out who was behind it.”

“It’s not for lack of trying. People at the CIA have risked their lives to get to the bottom of this—one man in particular.”

“True, but unfortunately that’s not something we can share. The operator you’re referring to is an off-the-books asset—he’s not even a U.S. citizen, for God’s sake. And if Congress finds out you authorized the agency to send a gun-for-hire downrange . . .”

The president stared at Markowitz as his words trailed off into the recirculated air. A biting reply began to rise, but then she thought better of it. Ed had been with her for seven years now, first in the Montana governor’s mansion, and now in the White House. Was the pressure getting to him? Or is it getting to me?

“The midterm elections are closing in,” Markowitz pressed, “and the Democrats are baying for a response. Needless to say, national security is not ground we can afford to concede.”

“Nobody is conceding anything. Intelligence work takes time.” Cleveland spoke from a position of authority—after graduating from college, she had done a stint in the Army Reserve as an intelligence officer. “What’s on my calendar tomorrow?” she asked, ready to change the subject.

Markowitz finger-tapped on his tablet. “The standard morning briefings until ten, then you meet with the vice president to discuss border controls.”

“I thought he was in Asia.”

“He got back this afternoon.”

She had put Vice President Lincoln Quarrels in charge of the southern border. It was a thankless job, and a problem that had been festering for decades. In Cleveland’s view, it wasn’t a uniquely American issue, but rather a regional manifestation of what was happening across the globe. With the world increasingly divided into haves and have-nots, the exodus of the downtrodden had become a torrent. For America, having oceans on either side and a prosperous Canada to the north, the problem was simply hyper-focused.

The president massaged her temples, feeling the onset of a massive headache. Her eyes went back to the window but snagged on her reflection in the inner pane. Her brown hair, styled dutifully this morning, was drooping after the long day. Even in the ghosted image she could see bags under her eyes. Cleveland rarely found time for diversions of vanity, but the thought of a morning makeover crossed her mind.

The ground seemed to rush up suddenly and the great jet settled onto the runway. Its cantilever landing gear, and two of the finest pilots in the Air Force, bonded for a glass-smooth landing. Elayne Cleveland had never come to think of the White House as home, not really, but it was a place where she could rest. The finest bed-and-breakfast in the world.

Runway lights flashed past the window, the time interval between them lengthening as the great plane slowed. She heard the smartphones of staffers chiming notifications in the adjoining cabin. All of it brought her back to reality, and the idea of an early makeover tomorrow vanished.

There’s just too damned much to be done.

 

Five minutes later, Elayne Cleveland was descending red-carpeted stairs to the tarmac. She took care not to stumble—there were only a handful of cameras in the press pen today, but any misstep would go viral within minutes. Such was the aquarium she lived in.

She saluted two airmen at the bottom of the stairs and made a sharp turn toward her connecting flight: the Sikorsky VH-92 known as Marine One. The scrum of reporters was a hundred yards away, and Cleveland pretended not to hear their shouted questions, most of which had to do with the deplorable state of U.S.-Russia relations. Markowitz shadowed a few steps behind her, and nearing the helicopter she paused to let him catch up.

“Are you going to ride back to the White House with me?” she asked.

“Not tonight. I arranged for a car to take me straight home . . . Julie and I have plans to celebrate our anniversary. But if you need me for something—”

“No, no,” Cleveland said, cutting him off. “Have a nice time, and give Julie my best. I’ll see you in the morning.”

She turned away, forced a smile, and waved at the distant press gaggle. Cleveland strode as energetically as she could toward the idling helicopter, and at the steps of Marine One she exchanged another salute, this with a young Marine, before disappearing inside.


Click below to pre-order your copy of Assassin’s Mark, available November 28th, 2023!

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Excerpt Reveal: Deep Fake by Ward Larsen

Deep FakeAbsolute Power meets The Manchurian Candidate in this explosive political thriller from USA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen, Deep Fake.

The Cold War is back—but for some it never ended.

Sarah Ridgeway is living the life she’s always envisioned. She has a devoted husband, a loving daughter, and a comfortable home. The path to reach it, however, has not always been smooth. For twelve years her husband, Bryce, served in the Army, deployed to some of the world’s worst trouble spots. After his service ended with a combat injury, the future had seemed precarious, but with Sarah’s support and that of his wealthy family, combined with his exemplary service record, he is elected to congress.

Then, in a moment, everything changes: at a drab Washington fundraiser, the junior congressman intervenes in a terrorist attack, and narrowly escapes with his life. When videos of his bravery go viral, he quickly becomes a national hero. The timing could not be more fortuitous. The presidential primaries are heating up, and Bryce’s party is desperate for a fresh candidate to challenge the vulnerable incumbent.

Amid the whirlwind, Sarah senses something amiss. Since the attack, Bryce has been forgetful and acting strangely. Could it be the stress? she wonders. Might the recent explosion have aggravated his combat trauma? For the first time ever, she finds herself doubting a man she has always trusted. Confessing her fears to her closest friend, together they quietly search for answers. What they uncover is stunning: the man who might soon be president has a deeply held secret. A secret that will likely destroy Sarah’s life—and certainly lead the nation to ruin.

Deep Fake will be available on March 14th, 2023. Please enjoy the following excerpt!


CHAPTER ONE

MISTED AWAY

Sarah read the words never realizing how apt they would prove: The End.

A wave of cool air brushed over the bed and she sank deeper beneath the covers. She looked accusingly at the window, saw the lefthand frame hanging crookedly on its hinge. Every time a door opened downstairs, a tiny blast of hard November air sucked in.

One more thing for Bryce’s honey-do list.

She put down the short story and capped her red pen, glad to be done. She’d given up late last night, not quite able to finish—hardly a vote of confidence for the poor author—but after the first clatter this morning she was hopelessly awake. Five a.m. She’d made the best of it, editing the last twenty pages. The ending was decent, or at least it hadn’t put her back to sleep. She’d begun picking up freelance work eight years ago, a perfect job for a stay-at-home Army wife with a sharp eye for detail. Today she was getting all the work she wanted. Magazine articles, fiction, the occasional memoir. Nothing lucrative, but it paid the bills. Or at least some of them. Phone, electric. Gas in a good month.

Another bang from the kitchen storm door. Another microburst of chilly outside air.

With a sigh, Sarah threw off the covers and pulled herself up. She went straight to the closet, shrugged a waffle robe over her nightshirt and knotted the sash tight. Then a precautionary inspection in the dressing mirror: her shoulder-length sandy hair was mussed but not tangled, and she gave her front teeth a perfunctory finger-brush.

She padded downstairs feeling chipper, ready for whatever the day might bring. At the midpoint on the staircase she noticed the doorbell chime—mounted high on the wall over the front door, it appeared crooked. Bryce had been busy lately, but it was time for a nudge.

Where was that list?

Fortunately, the house was a good house. Not new, but endowed with good bones, or so the realtor had said. Sarah supposed that meant the rafters weren’t creaky, the studs not rotted. She loved the place because it was theirs. After fifteen years of Army-issue family housing, with its white-popcorn ceilings and painted-over black mold, she and Bryce finally had their names on a real deed. Right next to the bank’s.

She reached the kitchen, her favorite room of the house and where her nesting instincts were most evident: sunny yellow accents on the walls between cabinets, a tasteful backsplash behind the counter, pots hung functionally near the stove. It was all bright and organized, a place where comfort food was served.

At first, she saw no sign of Bryce. Then a flash of motion at the storm door. He hooked it open with one foot, his arms laden with firewood. Still wearing his heavy backpack, he looked like a bad juggling act. Before she could go to his aid he was stomping inside, the door crashing shut behind him.

“Good morning,” he said. “Is Alyssa awake?”

“If she wasn’t, she is now.”

He shot her a sideways glance. “Oh . . . sorry.”

“Don’t worry. It’s after six—she ought to be getting ready for school.” More racket as he dumped the logs next to the fireplace. Sarah checked the floor—a bit of mud, but for once he’d remembered to wipe his feet. He returned to the kitchen, a portrait of fitness in running shoes, shorts, and a moisture-wicking pullover. He was perspiring despite the morning chill

“How was the run?” she asked.

“Better than yesterday.”

This was his stock answer, a domestic version of the outlook beaten into him at Army Ranger school. No easy day and Hoorah and all that crap. Those days were behind them now, and as much as Sarah wanted to blame the Army for what had befallen her husband, she knew better. At every turn, Bryce had made his choices. Now they would live with them. And by her account, they were doing just fine.

He shrugged off a backpack holding thirty pounds of sand and an empty water bottle.

“What time did you get up?” she asked.

“A little before five. Today was a long run, twelve miles.”

“I thought a ‘long’ was ten.”

“That was last month. I’m making progress.”

“Toward what? Masochism? You’re not training for a marathon and you’re not in the Army anymore. You’re a first-term congressman from Virginia’s Tenth. Extreme fitness doesn’t get you votes.

“Don’t be so sure. There’s a big track club in Fairfax.” He moved toward the gurgling coffee machine, sideswiping a wet kiss on her cheek as he passed.

“Yuk,” she said with faux disgust, wiping away the wetness.

“It’s drizzling outside.”

Sarah popped two bagels into the toaster, one for him and one for Alyssa. “Will you be home for dinner tonight?”

He considered it as he filled two mugs with Trader Joe’s Dark. “Um . . . no. I’ve got a fundraiser.”

“For who?”

“The governor of Virginia.” He slid a mug in front of her.

“Well, bully for you. I’ve got a fundraiser tomorrow—I’m selling brownies at Alyssa’s soccer game.”

“Trade you.”

“Not a chance, Major. You picked the game, you play it.”

Bryce cut his coffee with milk and took a long steamy sip. When the cup came down his face was set in a wide smile. The smile. The one that hadn’t changed in seventeen years, since she’d first seen it outside the freshman dorms at Princeton. Easy and natural, Hollywood-level charisma. The smile that, as alluded to by exit polling, had won eighty-six percent of the college-educated female vote in Virginia’s affluent exburbs.

Sarah smiled back. “What’s on the agenda this morning?”

He checked the calendar on his phone. “Looks like a breakfast reception downtown, then a Veterans Day event at a hotel. After that, committee meetings and a strategy session with Mandy before lunch.” Mandy Treanor was his campaign manager, a lithe, auburn-haired knockout five years younger than either of them, and a Georgetown Law grad to boot. She was paying her dues in a cutthroat profession, which for now meant babysitting a freshman congressman. Given Bryce’s smashingly successful first campaign, Sarah had no doubt Mandy would be moving up the Beltway ladder soon.

The toaster popped out two perfectly browned bagels. Bryce fingered one clear and began slathering it with butter. When he turned toward the fridge, Sarah noticed his leg.

“You’re bleeding,” she said.

“What?” He looked at her, then followed her gaze to his right calf. A crescent-shaped cut, three inches long, smiled up at him. “Oh, that. There was some construction on the path and I had to climb over a fence to get around it. Must’ve gotten nicked. It’s just a scratch.

“Want me to clean it up?”

“I can handle it. I’m highly trained in battlefield medicine.”

“And I’m highly trained in overconfident husbands. I could at least—”

Mom!” Their conversational thread snapped as if cut by a machete. Alyssa’s voice, terse and demanding. They looked up the wooden staircase in unison, knights staring into a dragon’s lair. Only a teenage girl could suffuse one word with such peril.

“Guess she’s awake,” Bryce said. “I gotta go shower.”

“Coward.”

“Don’t tell anyone. It would ruin my well-honed warrior image.” He started up the stairs, coffee in one hand, warm everything in the other.

Sarah found herself distracted by the scrape on his leg. It didn’t look bad, yet she kept staring.

“I can’t find my brush!”

The thought misted away. “I’ll be right there, baby . . .”


Click below to pre-order your copy of Deep Fake, coming March 14th, 2023!

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The Pioneers of Air and Space: A Five Book Primer by Ward Larsen

Assassin's EdgeUSA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen’s globe-trotting assassin, David Slaton, returns for another breathless adventure in Assassin’s Edge! Check out what Ward has to say about five books he greatly enjoyed which give a better understanding of those who made exceptional contributions to air and space travel!


By Ward Larsen:

The Pioneers of Air and Space: A Five Book Primer

It’s barely over a century since Orville and Wilbur launched the flight that changed the world. From that moment—twelve seconds of canvas, wood, and bailing wire gliding above the dunes of Kitty Hawk—we’ve progressed to million-pound airliners that connect continents. Over four billion people fly each year, the moon has been conquered, and much of that progress is thanks to a handful of individuals. These five books will give a better understanding of those who made outsized contributions to air and space travel.

Image Place holder  of - 40The Aviators by Winston Groom

The Aviators details the roles of three legendary pilots: Eddie Rickenbacker, Jimmy Doolittle, and Charles Lindbergh. No names are more chiseled into aviation lore, and not surprisingly, the three had a great deal in common. All were awarded the Medal of Honor, and each nearly lost his life in World War II.

Rickenbacker is largely remembered as the Ace of Aces in World War I, a swashbuckling image that belied the gruesome truth of the day—those early wood-and-cloth crates crashed to earth at an astonishing rate. Like many of that first generation of pilots, Rickenbacker was recruited from the ranks of another daring vocation—he was a highly successful race car driver. When the Second World War arrived, he served as a valuable advisor to the Army Air Corps. It was in that capacity, flying as a passenger, that he was nearly killed in a crash in the Pacific.

Doolittle’s claim to legend arrived late in his career, when he led a squadron of Army Air Corps B-25s off the carrier USS Hornet to undertake the first aerial bombardment of Japan. Stirring as that mission was, his more vital contribution to aviation came over a decade earlier when he pioneered the concept of using cockpit gauges to fly blind through weather.

Lindbergh was inarguably the most famous of them all, the man who captured the world’s imagination by conquering the Atlantic. His fame was not without toll, however, throwing his personal and political life into upheaval. In the air, however, Lindbergh’s focus never wavered.  He flew combat in the South Pacific during World War II, shooting down enemy aircraft and devising innovative fuel-saving techniques, and he later served as an adviser to both the Air Force and Pan Am Airlines.

The Aviators offers a deeper look at three of the most visionary pilots to ever take flight.

Poster Placeholder of - 8The Sky Beyond by Sir Gordon Taylor

Gordon Taylor is not a widely known name, but his first-hand account of the genesis of trans-oceanic flying is a must read. Pilots today take for granted GPS that pinpoints their position to with a few meters, and before that reliable radio aids were widely available. In the 1920’s, however, no such electronic luxuries existed. Indeed, there were precious few methods of navigating across featureless expanses of water, and the idea of spanning an ocean was aspirational at best.

With engaging prose, Taylor recounts his methods of tackling the last remaining earthly frontier. He describes modifying a sextant—the instrument used by sea captains for centuries—to function on a fast-moving, unstable aircraft. With little more than a map, compass, clock, and airspeed indicator, he hopped from one tiny Pacific atoll to the next, hundreds of miles of blue water between.

Gordon Taylor’s efforts were technically groundbreaking, audacious, and The Sky Beyond is storytelling at its best, as well as a deeper reflection on man’s pioneering spirit.

Place holder  of - 19Amelia Earhart: A Biography by Doris Rich

No list of pioneers in the golden era of flight would be complete without the world’s most renowned aviatrix. This biography covers not only her quest for aviation firsts, but introduces a multifaceted woman: writer, public speaker, businesswoman, self-promoter, and when necessary, a sharp-edged competitor.

Rich details Earhart’s upbringing, and the beginnings of her interest in aviation. After capturing the world’s eye by crossing the Atlantic in Lindberg’s wake, we see a woman who is transformed—enduring rather than embracing fame in order to further her passion to fly. The book’s constant undertone, of course, is the universally known ending. The early years of aviation were fraught with hazard, particularly to those who challenged boundaries, a point driven home when Earhart disappeared with her navigator in the vast South Pacific.

The mystery of what happened on that fateful flight remains unsolved, yet Earhart’s legacy is enduring proof that the horizons for women have no limits.

Image Placeholder of - 64The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe

In an account that is both technically accurate and stylistically bold, Wolfe tells two intricately interlaced tales: the groundbreaking induction of the original Mercury Seven astronauts, and a competing cadre of test pilots who cheat death daily in the desert southwest. The former group finds instant fame, even before the first of them flies, while the latter toils away pressing the boundaries of aerodynamics, risking their lives on a daily basis.

Wolfe’s prose is as brash as his characters, and the juxtaposition of celebrity against the Spartan military life of the post-war era—including wives who are tied to their husbands’ careers—makes for a thoroughly entertaining read. As the space program finds its footing, a new breed of aviators known as astronauts will ride rockets toward the stars, while the best test pilots, led by Chuck Yeager himself, find they have been leapfrogged on “the pyramid.”

These were heady times, and Wolfe smartly captures the fraternal spirit and “single-seat” mindset of military aviators.

Placeholder of  -36Sky Gods, The Fall of Pan Am by Robert Gandt

There is no more illuminating chronicle of the U.S. airline industry than the rise and fall of Pan Am, and Gandt’s Sky Gods is the consummate telling. The airline industry today is easily taken for granted: billions of people travel the globe each year, and with an unprecedented record of safety. The first attempts at commercial aviation, however, were anything but a success.

Sky Gods details the exploits of Pan Am founder Juan Trippe, a Yale-educated naval aviator who, after his service, swam into the shark infested seas of banking and government, and came out with a leviathan of an airline. Pan Am was the unquestioned standard bearer of the industry for over fifty years. It was the first to cross the Pacific, the first to fly the Atlantic, and the first to go around the world.

Trippe’s vision and drive pushed the airline forward, but it also sowed the seeds of its ultimate demise. The airline business is among the most cutthroat on earth, and the story of Pan Am will forever stand as unique.

I have enjoyed these books greatly, and I hope you will too.

 

Ward Larsen has flown as both a military and airline pilot, and is the author of the David Slaton series. His latest book, Assassin’s Edge, is available from Forge Books.

Order your copy of Assassin’s Edge here!

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$2.99 eBook Sale: Assassin’s Revenge by Ward Larsen

The eBook edition of Assassin’s Revenge by Ward Larsen is on sale for the month of March for only $2.99!


About Assassin’s Revenge by Ward Larsen:

On a sunny dock in Gibraltar, Slaton returns to the sailboat he shares with his wife and young son to find them missing. The only clue to their whereabouts is a cryptic message: If he wants to see them again, he must eliminate an obscure scientist working for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Slaton races to Vienna to unravel the scheme.

Half a world away, a small team of ISIS operatives arrives in North Korea. It is comprised of two suicidal jihadists, one technician, and the caliphate’s only officer with naval experience. Their mission: to reestablish the group’s relevance by undertaking a shocking strike against America.

From Europe to North Korea to the Pacific Ocean, Slaton finds himself entangled in a deadly nuclear game. Working against him are a band of suicidal terrorists, supported by a North Korean government that is about to implode. That slate of actors, however, face something even more lethal.

A devoted father and husband—one who happens to be the perfect assassin.

Click here to order your copy!

This sale ends on 3/31/2022 at 11:59 pm ET.

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Excerpt: Assassin’s Edge by Ward Larsen

Assassin's EdgeUSA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen’s globe-trotting assassin, David Slaton, returns for another breathless adventure in Assassin’s Edge!

A U.S. spy plane crashes off the northern coast of Russia at the same time that a Mossad operative is abducted from a street in Kazakhstan. The two events seem unrelated, but as suspicions rise, the CIA calls in its premier operative, David Slaton.

When wreckage from the aircraft is discovered on a remote Arctic island, Slaton and a team are sent on a clandestine mission to investigate. While they comb a frigid Russian island at the top of the world, disaster strikes yet again: a U.S. Navy destroyer sinks in the Black Sea.

Evidence begins mounting that these disparate events are linked, controlled by an unseen hand. A mysterious source, code name Lazarus, provides tantalizing clues about another impending strike. Yet Lazarus has an agenda that is deeply personal, a thirst for revenge against a handful of clandestine operators. Prime among them: David Slaton.

Assassin’s Edge will be available on April 14th, 2022. Please enjoy the following excerpt!

CHAPTER ONE

On appearances, the two events could not have been more disconnected. In reality, they could not have been more intimately entwined. 

Raven 44 cut smoothly through thin air, floating effortlessly in one of the earth’s most hostile environments: the lonely sky above seventy degrees north latitude. As the big RC-135 skirted the northern border of Russia, the air outside registered sixty degrees below zero. At that temperature water goes instantly to ice, and fuel in the wings must be constantly heated. The jet’s cabin, of course, was warm and dry, aeronautical engineers having long ago conquered such environmental adversities. 

Other threats, however, were far less foreseeable. 

“I’ve got an intermittent strobe bearing three-four-zero,” announced Staff Sergeant Kyle Trask over the intercom. He was one of seven airborne systems operators manning workstations in the airplane’s tunnel-like cabin. 

“From the north, not landside?” asked Major Tom Meadows, the mission commander who oversaw the sensor suites. “North,” confirmed Trask. “Looks like it’s coming from 401. Really high power, broad spectrum, comes and goes . . . haven’t seen anything like it before.” 

The major rose from his own console, fighting stiffness from the long mission, and went to stand behind Trask. He studied the sergeant’s display, which was a composite map of the surrounding area: a terrain relief of glacial coastline that hadn’t changed in a million years, overlaid by airspace boundaries that hadn’t existed when his grandfather was born. To Raven 44’s left was the northern coast of Russia, the ice-rimmed frontier where the wilderness of Siberia met the Arctic Ocean. On the starboard side there were no land masses whatsoever, only sea and ice all the way to the North Pole. Thirty miles ahead, however, Meadows saw dashed lines representing restricted-use airspace. Aptly named Danger Area 401, it was a twelve-hundred-mile-long corridor that encompassed all the airspace from the sea’s surface to outer space. DA 401 was used, on rare occasions, by the Russian military to conduct missile tests. 

“Is it hot now?” Meadows asked. 

“It is, sir. Went active a few hours ago.” 

“This is the first time I’ve seen it go live.” 

“I have a couple of times,” Trask replied, “but it’s pretty unusual.” He had been running the northern surveillance tracks longer than Meadows. 

DA 401 was exceptionally large, stretching hundreds of miles out to sea, and so it was rarely activated—doing so impinged on highly lucrative commercial airline overflights. Yet both men knew an advisory had been issued days earlier announcing its impending use. Indeed, this was probably why their mission had been moved up twelve hours: headquarters wanted to see what the Russians were up to. 

Raven 44 was an RC-135W, a highly modified version of the venerable KC-135 tanker. The type had been in service with the Air Force since the dawn of the Cold War, and this particular jet had rolled off the production line in 1964—making it twenty years older than its oldest crewmember. Yet if the airframe was dated, its instrumentation was not. The jet had undergone extensive modifications ten years earlier to become the cutting edge platform known as Rivet Joint, and now the adopted child of the defunct Strategic Air Command was lurking along the borders of the old Soviet Union much as it always had. 

Rivet Joint aircraft had a very specific mission: they trolled along the edges of hostile airspace—places like Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran—in the hope of capturing scraps of electronic intelligence, or ELINT. Radar emissions, telemetry data, communications intercepts. All were fair game, collected passively and recorded for later analysis. It wasn’t as swashbuckling as dogfighting in fifth generation fighters, but in the bigger scheme of things the mission was no less vital to national security. And the intelligence gleaned made the F-22s and F-35s that much more lethal. 

The crew was weary. It had been four hours since the last aerial refueling, twelve since they’d taken off from their home drome: Kadena Air Base in Japan. Long missions were typical for Rivet Joints, augmented crews standard. The coffeepots got a workout, as did the bunks in the rest area. Even so, with the crew nearing its second shift change, everyone was in circadian arrhythmia, their senses dull and caffeine no longer bridging the gap. 

“What spectrum are we talking about?” Meadows asked, trying to ID the raw-data signal. 

“S-band, roughly three gigahertz, but it’s not in the library. Looks like they’re painting us, although that’s not unusual.” 

Meadows weighed how to handle it, and only one thing came to mind. He flicked a switch on his intercom and called the flight deck. 

The chime on the intercom didn’t exactly wake the aircraft commander, but it recaptured his thoughts, which had drifted to the barbeque he’d been planning for the weekend. Captain Bryan Crossfield tapped a switch to make the connection. “What’s up?” 

“Hey, Bryan,” Meadows said from in back. “We’re coming up on Area 401. Just wanted to make sure you were planning on staying clear?” 

“Yeah, this course should keep us a good ten miles south of the active sector. Why?” 

“We’re getting some solid S-band from one o’clock. The library doesn’t recognize the signal.” 

“Okay, thanks for the heads-up. We’ll stay clear.” Crossfield flicked off the intercom and addressed his copilot. “Sounds like they’re testing a new one.” 

“Guess that’s why we’re here,” said Lieutenant Rico Huerta as he gazed out the window on the right. 

“How far to the end of our track?” 

Huerta checked the flight management screen. “Nine minutes.” 

“Let’s extend it.” This was standard procedure. The Rivet Joint airframe was not ambidextrous—if they turned back east, the twenty-footlong side-scan antenna on her starboard hip would no longer have a view of the test range. Unknown signals were always worth watching. 

“We can’t go more than about forty extra miles,” said Huerta. “We’re due at the last refueling track in less than an hour, and that’s three hundred miles behind us.” 

“Fair enough. Let’s just give them what we can so that—” Crossfield’s words cut off abruptly.

 “What?” the copilot asked, sensing his skipper’s unease. 

“Did you feel that?” 

“No, what?” 

“Like . . . I don’t know, maybe a vibration.” 

“No, I—” 

This time there was no mistaking it. Crossfield’s hands instinctively seized the control column as the great airplane shuddered. Amber warnings lit on the main display, and then the ominous vibration seemed to stop. 

“Fault on the weather radar and Sat-Com 2,” said Huerta. 

“That’s the least of our worries. Maybe we picked up some ice on the engine fan blades when—” 

A great crack stunned both pilots, and in a flash the side window near Huerta’s shoulder spider-webbed, then failed. The decompression was explosive, rocking the airplane from nose to tail. All hell broke loose on the flight deck; the humid inside air crystallized to an icy fog, and papers and Styrofoam coffee cups flew through the breach. The cabin altitude, which had been at eight thousand feet, spiked to thirty-five thousand in seconds. 

Masks!” Crossfield shouted, reaching for his oxygen. He donned his O2 mask amid a riot of audible warnings and red lights. The autopilot kicked off, and the airplane began rolling into a dive—not a bad thing given their situation. “We need to get down to ten thousand feet!” he yelled as he pushed the control column forward. 

The noise was overwhelming, and having removed his headset to put the oxygen mask on, Crossfield couldn’t hear the intercom. What he did hear was shouting from the cabin behind. He glanced right and to his horror saw his copilot rag-dolling against the failed side window. There was blood on his face and he was clearly unconscious. 

Crossfield shouted for help, but doubted anyone in back could hear him. He began running through the procedure for an emergency descent—a maximum speed dive to a lower altitude where supplemental oxygen would no longer be needed. With the nose continuing to drop, he tried to right the airplane, but found the controls sluggish. In the back of his mind he recalled one exception to the emergency descent procedure: if structural damage was suspected, a high-speed dive was ruled out. 

Another great shudder from the airplane, like nothing he’d ever experienced. The jet seemed disconnected from his inputs, like a train no longer on the tracks. He fought the yoke desperately as the nose continued to bury. Rolling past ninety degrees—one wing pointed at the sea, the other toward the sky—the airspeed neared the redline. Just like that, the depressurization emergency became secondary to what was always priority one: maintain aircraft control. 

Crossfield hit the stops on the control column, but the airplane kept rolling. Approaching an inverted attitude, but still flying, the airplane emitted a terrible groan. The controls went suddenly light in his grasp, as if the great beast was hesitating. In a near vertical dive now, the windscreen filled with sea—still miles away, but closing in fast. Crossfield’s instincts told him—rightly, as it turned out—that the jet had suffered damage. 

The airspeed was approaching Mach 1—never a good place to be in a sixty-year-old airframe that wasn’t designed to go supersonic. For a moment his inputs seemed to find purchase, the flight controls beginning to respond. Then a second explosion, more disastrous than the first, sent everything tumbling. Crossfield was thrown to the left, his lap belt the only thing keeping him from slamming against the side window. Whatever had happened, he knew it was catastrophic. They were screwed, falling out of the sky a thousand miles from nowhere. Amid the Christmas tree of warning lights on the panels in front of him, he picked out the hydraulic pressure gauges. All were pegged to zero. It meant he had no flight controls, along with a damaged airframe and an incapacitated copilot. With g-forces pinballing him around the cockpit, Crossfield did the only thing he could do—he kept fighting the listless controls and prayed for an idea . . . any idea.

Despite all his training, all his years of experience, nothing came to mind as the ice-clad Arctic Ocean filled the front windscreen.

Click below to pre-order your copy of Assassin’s Edge, coming 04.12.22!

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What’s New from Forge this Winter

A new year is upon us, which means a slew of new books are arriving on the scene from Forge! We’re so excited to share the lineup of amazing books we have coming your way this winter. If you’re on the hunt for some books to curl up with during these chillier months of the year, take a look at what Forge has in store for you!


Cutthroat Dogs by Loren D. Estleman

Poster Placeholder of - 98“Someone is dead who shouldn’t be, and the wrong man is in prison.”

Nearly twenty years ago, college freshman April Goss was found dead in her bathtub, an apparent suicide, but suspicion soon fell on her boyfriend. Dan Corbeil was convicted of her murder and sent to prison. Case closed.

Or is it?

Available to read now!

A Thousand Steps by T. Jefferson Parker

A Thousand Steps-1Laguna Beach, California, 1968. The Age of Aquarius is in full swing. Timothy Leary is a rock star. LSD is God. Folks from all over are flocking to Laguna, seeking peace, love, and enlightenment.

Matt Anthony is just trying get by.

Matt is sixteen, broke, and never sure where his next meal is coming from. Mom’s a stoner, his deadbeat dad is a no-show, his brother’s fighting in Nam . . . and his big sister Jazz has just gone missing. The cops figure she’s just another runaway hippie chick, enjoying a summer of love, but Matt doesn’t believe it. Not after another missing girl turns up dead on the beach.

All Matt really wants to do is get his driver’s license and ask out the girl he’s been crushing on since fourth grade, yet it’s up to him to find his sister. But in a town where the cops don’t trust the hippies and the hippies don’t trust the cops, uncovering what’s really happened to Jazz is going to force him to grow up fast.

If it’s not already too late.

Available to read now!

Margaret Truman’s Murder at the CDC by Margaret Truman and Jon Land

Margaret Truman's Murder at the CDC2017: A military transport on a secret run to dispose of its deadly contents vanishes without a trace.

The present: A mass shooting on the steps of the Capitol nearly claims the life of Robert Brixton’s grandson.

No stranger to high-stakes investigations, Brixton embarks on a trail to uncover the motive behind the shooting. On the way he finds himself probing the attempted murder of the daughter of his best friend, who works at the Washington offices of the CDC.

The connection between the mass shooting and Alexandra’s poisoning lies in that long-lost military transport that has been recovered by forces determined to change America forever. Those forces are led by radical separatist leader Deacon Frank Wilhyte, whose goal is nothing short of bringing on a second Civil War.

Brixton joins forces with Kelly Lofton, a former Baltimore homicide detective. She has her own reasons for wanting to find the truth behind the shooting on the Capitol steps, and is the only person with the direct knowledge Brixton needs. But chasing the truth places them in the cross-hairs of both Wilhyte’s legions and his Washington enablers.

Coming 2.15.22!

The Chase by Candice Fox

The Chase

“Are you listening, Warden?”

“What do you want?”

“I want you to let them out.”

“Which inmates are we talking about?”

“All of them.”

With that, the largest manhunt in United States history is on. In response to a hostage situation, more than 600 inmates from the Pronghorn Correctional Facility, including everyone on Death Row, are released into the Nevada Desert. Criminals considered the worst of the worst, monsters with dark, violent pasts, are getting farther away by the second.

John Kradle, convicted of murdering his wife and son, is one of the escapees. Now, desperate to discover what really happened that night, Kradle must avoid capture and work quickly to prove his innocence as law enforcement closes in on the fugitives.

Death Row Supervisor, and now fugitive-hunter, Celine Osbourne has focused all of her energy on catching Kradle and bringing him back to Death Row. She has very personal reasons for hating him – and she knows exactly where he’s heading…

Coming 3.8.22!

Assassin’s Edge by Ward Larsen

image alt textA U.S. spy plane crashes off the northern coast of Russia at the same time that a Mossad operative is abducted from a street in Kazakhstan. The two events seem unrelated, but as suspicions rise, the CIA calls in its premier operative, David Slaton.

When wreckage from the aircraft is discovered on a remote Arctic island, Slaton and a team are sent on a clandestine mission to investigate. While they comb a frigid Russian island at the top of the world, disaster strikes yet again: a U.S. Navy destroyer sinks in the Black Sea.

Evidence begins mounting that these disparate events are linked, controlled by an unseen hand. A mysterious source, code name Lazarus, provides tantalizing clues about another impending strike. Yet Lazarus has an agenda that is deeply personal, a thirst for revenge against a handful of clandestine operators. Prime among them: David Slaton.

Coming 4.12.22!

Traitor by David Hagberg

image alt text1When McGarvey’s best friend, Otto, is charged with treason, Mac and his wife, Petey, set out on a desperate odyssey to clear Otto’s name. Crossing oceans and continents, their journey will take them from Japan to the US to Pakistan to Russia. Caught in a Kremlin crossfire between two warring intel agencies, Mac and Petey must fight for their lives every step of the way.

And the stakes could not be higher.

Coming 4.26.22!

And here are some great books coming out in trade paperback!

Waiting for the Night Song by Julie Carrick Dalton

Waiting for the Night Song-1Cadie Kessler has spent decades trying to cover up one truth. One moment. But deep down, didn’t she always know her secret would surface?

An urgent message from her long-estranged best friend Daniela Garcia brings Cadie, now a forestry researcher, back to her childhood home. There, Cadie and Daniela are forced to face a dark secret that ended both their idyllic childhood bond and the magical summer that takes up more space in Cadie’s memory then all her other years combined.

Now grown up, bound by long-held oaths, and faced with truths she does not wish to see, Cadie must decide what she is willing to sacrifice to protect the people and the forest she loves, as drought, foreclosures, and wildfire spark tensions between displaced migrant farm workers and locals.

Waiting for the Night Song is a love song to the natural beauty around us, a call to fight for what we believe in, and a reminder that the truth will always rise.

Available to read now! Reading group guide also available.

My Brilliant Life by Ae-ran Kim; translated by Chi-Young Kim

My Brilliant Life-1Areum lives life to its fullest, vicariously through the stories of his parents, conversations with Little Grandpa Jang—his sixty-year-old neighbor and best friend—and through the books he reads to visit the places he would otherwise never see.

For several months, Areum has been working on a manuscript, piecing together his parents’ often embellished stories about his family and childhood. He hopes to present it on his birthday, as a final gift to his mom and dad; their own falling-in-love story.

Through it all, Areum and his family will have you laughing and crying, for all the right reasons.

Coming 2.1.22! Reading group guide also available.

Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Her Perfect Life-1Everyone knows Lily Atwood—and that may be her biggest problem. The beloved television reporter has it all—fame, fortune, Emmys, an adorable seven-year-old daughter, and the hashtag her loving fans created: #PerfectLily. To keep it, all she has to do is protect one life-changing secret.

Her own.

Lily has an anonymous source who feeds her story tips—but suddenly, the source begins telling Lily inside information about her own life. How does he—or she—know the truth?

Lily understands that no one reveals a secret unless they have a reason. Now she’s terrified someone is determined to destroy her world—and with it, everyone and everything she holds dear.

How much will she risk to keep her perfect life?

Coming 3.8.22! Reading group guide also available.

The Lights of Sugarberry Cove by Heather Webber

The Lights of Sugarberry Cove-1Sadie Way Scott has been avoiding her family and hometown of Sugarberry Cove, Alabama, since she nearly drowned in the lake just outside her mother’s B&B. Eight years later, Sadie is the host of a much-loved show about southern cooking and family, but despite her success, she wonders why she was saved. What is she supposed to do?

Sadie’s sister, Leala Clare, is still haunted by the guilt she feels over the night her sister almost died. Now, at a crossroads in her marriage, Leala has everything she ever thought she wanted—so why is she so unhappy?

When their mother suffers a minor heart attack just before Sugarberry Cove’s famous water lantern festival, the two sisters come home to run the inn while she recovers. It’s the last place either of them wants to be, but with a little help from the inn’s quirky guests, the sisters may come to terms with their strained relationships, accept the past, and rediscover a little lake magic.

Coming 3.1.22! Reading group guide also available.

The Widow Queen by Elzbieta Cherezinska

The Widow QueenThe bold one, they call her—too bold for most.

To her father, the great duke of Poland, Swietoslawa and her two sisters represent three chances for an alliance. Three marriages on which to build his empire.

But Swietoslawa refuses to be simply a pawn in her father’s schemes; she seeks a throne of her own, with no husband by her side.

The gods may grant her wish, but crowns sit heavy, and power is a sword that cuts both ways.

Coming 3.15.22! Reading group guide also available.

Comes the War by Ed Ruggero

Comes the War-1April 1944, the fifty-fifth month of the war in Europe. The entire island of Britain fairly buzzes with the coiled energy of a million men poised to leap the Channel to France, the first, riskiest step in the Allies’ long slog to the heart of Germany and the end of the war.

Lieutenant Eddie Harkins is tasked to investigate the murder of Helen Batcheller, an OSS analyst. Harkins is assigned a British driver, Private Pamela Lowell, to aid in his investigation. Lowell is smart, brave and resourceful; like Harkins, she is prone to speak her mind even when it doesn’t help her.

Soon a suspect is arrested and Harkins is ordered to stop digging. Suspicious, he continues his investigation only to find himself trapped in a web of Soviet secrets. As bombs fall, Harkins must solve the murder and reveal the spies before it is too late.

Coming 3.29.22!

A Dog’s Courage by W. Bruce Cameron

A Dog's CourageBella was once a lost dog, but now she lives happily with her people, Lucas and Olivia, only occasionally recalling the hardships in her past. Then a weekend camping trip turns into a harrowing struggle for survival when the Rocky Mountains are engulfed by the biggest wildfire in American history. The raging inferno separates Bella from her people and she is lost once more.

Alone in the wilderness, Bella unexpectedly finds herself responsible for the safety of two defenseless mountain lion cubs. Now she’s torn between two equally urgent goals. More than anything, she wants to find her way home to Lucas and Olivia, but not if it means abandoning her new family to danger. And danger abounds, from predators hunting them to the flames threatening at every turn.

Can Bella ever get back to where she truly belongs?

A Dog’s Courage is more than a fast-paced adventure, more than a devoted dog’s struggle to survive, it’s a story asking that we believe in our dogs as much as they believe in us.

Coming 4.5.22!

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Excerpt: Assassin’s Strike by Ward Larsen

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USA Today bestselling author Ward Larsen’s globe-trotting, hard-hitting assassin, David Slaton, returns for another breathless adventure in Assassin’s Strike!

In a Syrian palace, the presidents of Russia and Iran undertake a clandestine meeting. No staff or advisors are permitted in the room. No records are kept. By necessity, however, there are two witnesses: the interpreters. The Russian, Ludmilla Kravchuk, returns to her hotel room burdened by what she has heard. When her Iranian counterpart is murdered before her eyes, Kravchuk fears she is next and goes into hiding in Syria.

The CIA gets word of the defection. Desperate to uncover the purpose of the meeting, they task their newest off-the-books operator—legendary assassin David Slaton—to undertake a daring rescue. Deep inside Syria’s war-torn borders, what Slaton finds is a plot that will tear the Middle East apart. And one that only he can stop.

Assassin’s Strike will be available on August 18th, 2020. Please enjoy the following excerpt.


One

Few people presume to whisper into the ears of presidents. Fewer still are duty bound to do precisely that.

Ludmilla Kravchuk sat with practiced calm in a straight-back Louis Quinze chair. She wore a heavy skirt that, even when seated, fell demurely below her dimpled knees. Her shapeless blouse was cast in neutral beige, not by chance blending seamlessly into the curtained backdrop. Her earrings were modest, small cultured pearls in a gold claw setting. Her only other accessory of note was an ordinary wristwatch, this shifted above the cuff on her right wrist. It was conceivable she might be asked the time, but to be seen checking it of her own accord would be a grievous faux pas.

Ever so discreetly, Ludmilla reached down and slipped a finger into the heel of her right shoe. Sensible flats, battleship gray, the shoes had been furnished specifically for this occasion, chosen so as to not clash with anything worn by the two main actors of today’s show. Unfortunately, the shoes proved to be a size too small. No doubt, she would be rewarded with a blister by the end of the day.

Ludmilla would be situated at President Petrov’s right shoulder, her chair perfectly placed in the staged meeting area. The two larger and more comfortable sitting chairs were situated at a perfectly diplomatic slant, the armrests canted toward one another at a thirty-degree angle. Anything less might appear aloof. Anything more confrontational. This would be President Petrov’s first summit with the newly elected Iranian president, Ahmed Rahmani, and it was not to be mishandled. Or as the adage went in diplomatic circles, If everyone does their job, a completely forgettable event.

As if to keep the world off-balance, the meeting was taking place in Damascus. The Syrian regime was desperate to put the war behind it, and playing neutral host to its two greatest benefactors—or coconspirators, some might say—was a baby step back onto the world stage. In a notable snub, however, the Syrian president would not take part. He had been left behind near a tray of scones at the breakfast table while the two principals pursued the world’s real business.

They were presently standing at the head of the meeting room, the presidents of Russia and Iran, posing and smiling for a band of official photographers—three Russian, one Iranian—who were capturing a series of wooden smiles and handshakes to be beamed over news wires later that day. Under a backdrop of whirring and clicking, the two men approached the upholstered chairs with a decorum that would have sufficed in any house of worship. Once comfortably seated, there were more handshakes and strobes until, all at once, the presidential smiles blanked like a pair of lights being switched off. The photographers took their cue and were ushered from the room. Next to go were two small contingents of support staff, followed at the end by the respective security details, two clusters of serious men, one Slavic, the other Persian, who eyed one another with that mix of suspicion and bravado invariably reared into the type. When the great double doors finally closed, a disconcerting silence fell across the room.

Ludmilla took a deep breath. The meeting today would be among the most unusual between heads of state, a pure one-on-one: no whispering advisors or busy stenographers. Had the two men shared a language, even in the most rudimentary sense, Ludmilla was certain that she and her Iranian counterpart would not be in attendance. As it was, the specter of misunderstanding demanded their inclusion.

Her eyes connected briefly with those of the attractive young Persian woman seated to the left of the Iranian president. Ludmilla thought she looked nervous. There had been no words between them since arriving in the room, although they’d met earlier at the hotel, as interpreters often did, to establish a few ground rules. Her name was Sofia Aryan, and she had admitted tautly to Ludmilla that she was nervous about the meeting: this was but her second occasion interpreting for the new Iranian president.

Ludmilla harbored no such insecurities. She had studied Mideast languages at the prestigious Lomonosov Moscow State University, and later honed her linguistic skills at the special language academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Mastering both Farsi and Arabic, she had thereafter served in various embassies across the Middle East: Iran, Jordan, Oman, and most recently two postings to Syria. It was this, her experience in both Tehran and Damascus, that had put her at the president’s side for this summit. She would be his linguistic filter, expected to catch every verbal nuance and colloquialism, to neither editorialize nor embellish, and to present herself with paramount dignity. More subtly, but no less important: she had to do it all as a chameleon, blending into the surroundings.

In the three weeks since learning of the assignment, Ludmilla had committed herself fully. She’d memorized the name and location of every military base in Iran, and could cite employment statistics from the most recent government economic report. She knew the Iranian president’s extended family tree, his relationship with the ayatollahs, his penchant for European football, and that he enjoyed fishing for trout. Ludmilla would of course never steer a conversation toward any of these subjects, but if they arose naturally she would be comfortable with the vernacular in every case.

She waited patiently for one of the two men to break the ice. Russia’s ties to the Iranian regime went back to the revolution, and the war in Syria had brought the nations closer yet—an alliance of convenience by any measure. Now the two heads of state were meeting in the heart of the killing grounds.

Not surprisingly, it was Petrov who began.

“I am glad we could meet,” he said in Russian.

Ludmilla listened closely to Aryan’s translation—not so much for content, which was basic enough, but to get a feel for her pacing and volume. At this level, interpreters were expected to operate with carefully governed modulation, the volume subtly loud enough for their counterpart to double-check, and the interval not stepping on the other principal’s reply.

Aryan seemed on task, if a bit measured.

“As am I,” Rahmani responded.

“I hope we can someday meet in the new villa you are building. The pictures I have seen are inspiring.”

The Iranian smiled, but a trace of discomfort shone through. Construction of the villa—the word palace carried uncomfortable connotations, regardless of how apt—was supposed to be a closely held secret, a necessary accommodation in a country whose economy had been suffering for years. The president of Russia, who began his career as a KGB officer, had made his first point: on matters of intelligence, Rahmani would be at a disadvantage.

With alpha status established, Petrov meandered to a bit of small talk about families and acquaintances. It was the usual banter of two leaders getting to know one another. Then, after some off-color humor about the American president, Petrov induced a sudden shift.

“My people have swept this room thoroughly,” he said, waving a hand through the air. “We can speak freely.”

The Iranian gave the slightest of nods.

“It is best to not be obtuse,” Petrov continued. “You know what I have come to discuss.”

Ludmilla felt Rahmani’s eyes hold her for a moment, before he said, “Of course. The new capability you have offered us.”

Petrov said, “I am convinced the transfer of this technology will help stabilize the region.”

“Yes, a bit of stability is always welcome in our corner of the world.”

“Indeed. Iran is surrounded by Sunnis, and Israeli strike aircraft are never more than a few hours away. Then, of course, you have the Americans blundering about as ever.”

“I am happy you recognize our dilemma,” said Rahmani.

Petrov might have smiled.

Ludmilla was keeping up well.

Petrov said, “The logistics on our end are in place. The delivery will take place in the coming days. As you can understand, we must be extremely careful about such transactions.”

“And this is why you’ve selected such a remote location?”

“It is. Tell your people that the timing will be rather fluid. Expect a window of a few days for the transfer to take place. I can also tell you that the man making the delivery is not provably Russian. He comes more from your part of the world than mine.”

“But clearly you trust him.”

“As much as I trust anyone,” said Petrov with a stone face.

Ludmilla’s ears reached for Aryan’s translation, making sure she did not editorialize these words.

“I am glad we have earned your confidence,” Rahmani replied. “We accept what you are offering with a due sense of responsibility. We of course have our own program in this area, but Russia has always been on the leading edge.”

Ludmilla stuck to her task as the conversation deepened, yet soon it veered onto ground that had not been in her briefing guide. Ground she never would have imagined in her preparations. It was the kind of thing, she supposed, that heads of state might discuss with trusted military advisors. Yet such an open discussion with a foreign leader seemed acutely misplaced. She tried to maintain focus, and saw Aryan struggling as well.

This was long the conundrum faced by interpreters—try as they might to detach themselves during work, they were in the end humans. Individuals with sentiments and opinions and souls. And as Ludmilla knew all too well, what was heard could never be unheard.

She did her best to stay on task, concentrating on verbiage and tone and detail. Trying not to be distracted by the bigger picture. After ten minutes, the essence of the meeting was inescapably clear. Five after that, Petrov abruptly declared the meeting complete. The president of Russia stood, headed for the door.

Rahmani followed.

Ludmilla remained frozen in her seat. Only her eyes tracked the two presidents as they neared the door. It was Iran’s leader who turned and glanced at her. His gaze then shifted to Sofia Aryan. He gently took Petrov’s elbow and whispered into his ear—the first direct, unfiltered words between the two. She wondered what language they shared. Broken

English? Whatever it was, Rahmani’s words seemed to register with Petrov. He, too, looked at Ludmilla and Aryan, as if recognizing their presence for the first time. He gave a slight nod, and the two men disappeared into the hallway.

The room fell uncomfortably still. Ludmilla heard the gentle rush of air from a vent, a door closing down the hall. The welcome return of the ordinary.

Her thoughts still spinning, she stood slowly, deliberately. She absently smoothed her perfectly pressed skirt. Aryan rose, and they exchanged an uncomfortable look. Still cordial, but newly laced with suspicion. A wariness born of the words of others. Words they had both been forced to hear and speak.

“That was . . . unusual,” Aryan said, her flawless Russian faltering.

Ludmilla didn’t respond.

“What do you think they said as they were leaving . . . when they looked back at us?”

“I’m not sure what you mean,” Ludmilla said unconvincingly.

Aryan gave her a plaintive look. “What they were discussing—”

What they were discussing is no business of ours!” Ludmilla interjected. “We are paid for our language skills, not our opinions.”

“Of course, you are right. It is just that . . . certain things are difficult to forget.”

“Perhaps, but forget we must. That is our duty.” Ludmilla hoped the conviction in her words belied what she felt. She had interpreted for many important meetings. Never had she come away with her thoughts in such disarray. She was confident her translations had been accurate, but she also knew she’d hesitated distinctly on realizing what the two men were proposing. Aryan’s unease was understandable. Even so, Ludmilla would not fuel it further.

“The Four Seasons is a very nice place,” Aryan ventured. “How long will you be staying?”

In a tone that held no regret, Ludmilla said, “Regrettably, I am scheduled to leave tomorrow.”

“Too bad. Perhaps we could have met for coffee.”

Ludmilla recoiled. Such contact would be blatantly unprofessional. Still, she found herself thinking about it. By pure chance the two of them, a Russian and an Iranian who would likely never meet again, had been bonded by circumstances. Tied by a secret neither could share with anyone else on earth.

“No,” Ludmilla said decisively, “that would not be possible.”

Aryan nodded to say she understood. She seemed suddenly smaller, her pretty face gone pale. She looked like a woman being pushed to sea alone in a lifeboat. It occurred to Ludmilla that she would have to report this conversation. A part of her—the old Soviet part of her youth—imagined that the exchange they’d just overheard was only some convoluted test. An assessment of her loyalty. Could Petrov really have sunk to that kind of thing?

Aryan walked toward her, still at sea, and offered a hesitant handshake.

Ludmilla gave her that much.

With a tortured smile, and in a shuffle of crisp polyester, Sofia Aryan turned toward the door and disappeared.

 

Two

Situated centrally in Damascus, on the northern bank of the Barada River, The Four Seasons was as close to a luxury hotel as remained in Syria. As with the rest of the country, a decade of war had taken its toll. The pool was closed, the hot water intermittent, and half the items on the room service menu were no longer on offer. A letter squared on the writing desk, immaculately scripted in the general manager’s hand, offered his personal apologies for these running inconveniences, and asked guests for their “forbearance in light of our nation’s ongoing troubles.”

It was all of little concern to Ludmilla Kravchuk. As she stared distractedly down from her twelfth-floor window to the empty pool and vacant deck, there was no room in her mind for regrets about not having the opportunity to sunbathe. She turned into her spacious suite, her thoughts no less a maelstrom now than when she’d returned from the palace two hours ago.

The meeting remained stuck in her head, segments of disjointed conversation looping time and again. She’d had misgivings after meetings in the past, but they had mostly centered on her performance. Had she used the right words? Captured accurately the principals’ tones? Today was different. In that unique affliction suffered by interpreters, every word arrived in her head with an echo—in this case, once in Farsi and again in Russian. She searched for faults in her translation. Prayed for them even. Try as she might, there were none. Her work had been unerring. The problem was the subject matter.

Ludmilla’s meandering ended near the nightstand. She stood stock-still in front of the full-length dressing mirror. She thought she looked suddenly older, her face weary. The subtle lines in her forehead had gone to grooves, and her shoulders drooped as if she were hauling heavy bags. She had been working for the foreign ministry for twenty-two years, long enough to draw a modest pension. And what more did she need given her situation?

Ludmilla had married young and impulsively, and for a time it had worked. Then Grishka had lost his job at the tractor factory, and soon after she began a series of foreign postings. He had left her ten years ago for a woman half his age. Two years after that he’d been found dead in a ditch on a sub-zero January morning, an empty vodka bottle by his side. They’d never had children, which was probably just as well. Aside from a brother in St. Petersburg she hadn’t spoken to in years, Ludmilla had no immediate family.

Perhaps it’s time, she thought. A small cottage near the Black Sea.

She turned away from the mirror, not liking its company. She strove to regain her interpreter’s composure. Subject matter aside, Ludmilla had sensed something unusual today in the current of Petrov’s words. His constructions had seemed crafted with unusual care, almost as if rehearsed. Conversely, she’d sensed caution, even mild surprise in Rahmani’s responses—an impression she would include in her after-action report. If I could only collect myself long enough to write one.

A knock on the door rattled her back to the present.

Ludmilla edged toward the peephole and peered through. What felt like a shot of stray voltage coursed through her spine. The face in the fish-eyed lens was painfully familiar.

Close-cropped black beard, heavy brow, fearsome eyes of coal. Cinderblock head on crossbeam shoulders. It was Oleg Vasiliev, the head of Petrov’s security detail.

She hesitated, wondering if she might call out that she was in the shower. Of course she knew better. Ludmilla was a product of the new Russia, and a near-confidant of its czar. She strongly suspected they’d wired her room. It was a discomforting thought, but one she’d grown accustomed to—one of the prices paid for the privileges she enjoyed. As a more practical matter, Ludmilla recalled what she’d been told in her arrival briefing. The Russian delegation had taken over the hotel’s two highest floors in their entirety. She was on the penultimate level, directly beneath the presidential suite, and as head of security, Vasiliev had in his possession a key that would open any room on either floor. An accommodation made by The Four Seasons, she supposed, for the security chiefs of visiting heads of state.

After a bracing inhalation, she pulled open the door.

Vasiliev barged inside. “Your shoes,” he demanded.

“I beg your pardon?”

“My man brought you a pair of shoes last night—you wore them at today’s meeting. They must be returned.”

Ludmilla blinked. It was not uncommon for interpreters to be issued wardrobes, particularly for head-of-state summits. Indeed, her closet at home displayed an entire rack of grain-sack-cut skirts and neutral blouses, issued like so many uniforms to a diplomatic corporal. As far as she could remember, this was the first time she’d ever been asked to return anything.

She set out toward the closet, feeling Vasiliev’s eyes on her. It was more a watchdog’s gaze than anything leering. This Ludmilla knew all too well. She had not been chosen as the president’s interpreter based solely on her language skills. Solid as they were, a dozen men and women in the foreign ministry were every bit as proficient. What set her apart were her physical attributes—or, more bluntly, her lack thereof. Her peasant’s jowls and thick build had been with her since childhood. So too, her stern facial set and officious manner. Yet what had proved a social handicap as a young woman she’d turned to an advantage amid her small community of interpreters. At the apex of Russia’s male-dominated pyramid of power, she had claimed a niche with her plain, undistracting appearance. Payback of sorts, she told herself, for a lifetime of doors not being opened and catcalls missed.

She went to the closet and saw the shoes in back.

As an interpreter, Ludmilla was something of a professional listener, an expert in the nuanced details of spoken phrases. That being the case, she recalled precisely what Vasiliev had just said: a pair of shoes.

Singular.

His minion had yesterday delivered the dress she’d worn to the meeting, along with two identical pairs of shoes—two, she’d been told, because they had been unsure of her size. It seemed rather wasteful, but Ludmilla thought little of it at the time. This morning she’d slipped on the larger pair. They were tight—her mother’s side of the family was cursed with big feet—yet by the end of the day the shoes had broken in nicely. She also thought them rather stylish, at least more so than the chock-heeled black wedges that dominated her closet back home.

In a decision any Russian would understand—and one that would soon change her life forever—Ludmilla retrieved the smaller pair she’d never worn and handed them to Vasiliev.

He took them in his hairy hand and was out the door.

 

Three

The second knock on Ludmilla’s door came twenty minutes later. She assumed Vasiliev had come back for the second pair of shoes, and prepared to feign forgetfulness. One look through the viewing port, however, converted mere disappointment to alarm. An agitated Sofia Aryan stood rocking on her heels, her gaze alternating between the door and the Hallway.

Ludmilla put on a stern face and opened the door. “You should not have come here!” she admonished.

Much like Vasiliev, Aryan shouldered in without invitation. “They are following me!” she said breathlessly.

“This is highly . . .” Ludmilla’s protest faded. “Who is following you?”

“Two men—I’m sure they are VAJA,” she said, referring to Iranian intelligence. “I was returning from lunch and they tried to seize me on the sidewalk outside the hotel. As they dragged me toward a car I began screaming, and fortunately a group of soldiers were passing on the sidewalk. They tussled with the men long enough for me to get free. I was able to get away in the confusion, but I can’t return to my room—it is the first place they’ll look. I didn’t know where to go. Then I remembered that you were staying at The Four Seasons as well.”

“How did you know my room number?”

“During our coordination meeting this morning . . . you used your key to access the business center. I saw the room number on the sleeve.”

Ludmilla stared at the woman with newfound respect. She was clever, or at the very least observant. She was also clearly terrified. Her hair was mussed, and one cuff of her dark blue overcoat had suffered a jagged tear.

Aryan took Ludmilla’s hand and looked at her pleadingly. “You are the only one who could understand. We are in the same position . . . you heard the same things I did today. You know what is being planned by—”

“No! None of that concerns us! It is a grave breach of protocol for us to even discuss anything we’ve heard!”

The gentle lines in Aryan’s pretty face deepened, and her lively dark eyes lost some of their luster. “You know what it is like in Iran. I can’t go back now. If they find me, they will—”

“Out!” Ludmilla demanded. “Out of my room now!” She herded Aryan through the still-open door and into the hall. The woman looked on the verge of panic.

“Don’t you understand?” Aryan argued. “If they have come for me, they will come for you as well! If not VAJA, then Petrov’s SVR! You and I heard far too much to be allowed to—”

Ludmilla slammed the door shut and threw the bolt.

She expelled a great breath and put her shoulders on the door as if expecting another assault by Aryan. She waited, expecting her pleading voice or frantic pounding. What she heard was something else.

A man somewhere down the hall was shouting in Farsi: “Stop! We mean you no harm!”

That was followed by multiple footfalls. The first set were light and quick, scampering like a deer. These were followed by what sounded like a stampede of bison. More shouting, the words unintelligible. Ludmilla heard a door slam somewhere down the hall.

Then an uneasy silence.

She tried to remain calm.

She crossed the room tentatively, retrieved a bottle of mineral water from the bedside stand. Cracking the cap, she took a deliberate sip, trying to right her disjointed thoughts. She recalled the panicked look on Aryan’s face. Then the conversation the two of them had heard and translated this morning. And now? Now Iranian thugs were chasing the poor woman down the hall. It was some minutes later—how many she could not say—that the last underpinnings of her steadfast world were removed. It would prove to be the moment she remembered above all others. The one that forced its way to her nightmares.

A scream.

It began with disconcerting suddenness, full-throated and desperate. More curiously, the cry changed swiftly in pitch and volume, like the screech of a passing subway car. She didn’t know precisely where it was sourced, but it ended with dreadful abruptness. Soon after, Ludmilla was drawn to the window by a chorus of shouts. Ever so slowly, reluctantly, she crossed the room.

She looked down at the pool deck. No longer vacant, three uniformed hotel employees stood in a perfect triangle, and between them a body lay splayed facedown on the stone patio. A body in a dark blue coat. The arms were outstretched, almost as if pleading. A puddle of red was growing quickly beneath, oozing toward the empty pool.

Ludmilla’s knees buckled, and she leaned involuntarily into the wall next to the window. She gasped for breath, as if the room had suddenly gone to a vacuum. Thoughts that had been brewing only moments ago, fleeting and ill-defined, seemed to fuse with a crushing weight. More shouting broke the spell, this time from above. The words were muddled, yet the tone was easily distinguishable. An alarm being raised. Commands given in Russian.

It was coming from Petrov’s suite.

She stood frozen, stilled by indecision. A lifetime of conformity collided with far more basic instincts. The likes of fear and self-preservation. Slowly, glacially, Ludmilla’s methodical nature reasserted itself. She knew what she had to do . . . at least in the next sixty seconds.

She retrieved her purse from the nightstand, double-checking that her passport and wallet were inside. She suspected her phone could be tracked, so she set that aside. She considered packing a bag, but a door slamming somewhere above ended the thought. She yanked her light jacket from a hanger in the closet. On another day she might have remembered sunglasses, or perhaps a scarf with which to cover her hair. Then again, on another day she might not have been so bold. Only later would Ludmilla realize that the most crucial decision she made in those seconds was quite accidental. From the closet she picked out the shoes she’d worn that morning.

Moments later she was out the door and rushing through the hall. The elevator seemed quickest, and she breathed a sigh of relief when the door opened to present an empty car. In the lobby she made a beeline for the front entrance where the doorman ably waved up a taxi. She gave the driver an address that she knew to be across town—not because it was her destination, but because she didn’t have one. She needed time to think. As the car pulled away, Ludmilla glanced over her shoulder. She saw two men bustling out the hotel’s revolving front door. They skidded to a stop on the curb and began conferring with the doorman. He pointed to her receding cab like a witness pointing out a murderer in a Courtroom.

Ludmilla shrank instinctively in her seat. She opened her purse and pulled out a fistful of Syrian pounds—she’d intended to go shopping, but had run out of time. In an impulse that was completely at odds with her frugal nature, she threw a wad of cash into the front seat. “I wish to change my destination!” she said in perfect Arabic, adding the name of a hotel less than a mile away. “Please hurry! I am late for my daughter’s wedding!”

The driver glanced at her in the mirror, then looked at the lump of cash on his seat. The car accelerated.

Ludmilla ventured a final look back as the cab turned onto a side street. She didn’t recognize the two men as as being from Vasiliev’s detail, but their Slavic features and the way their eyes tracked her cab left no doubt.

There were Russian.

And they had come for her.

Copyright © Ward Larsen

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$2.99 Ebook Deal: Cutting Edge by Ward Larsen

The ebook edition of Cutting Edge by Ward Larsen is on sale now for only $2.99! Get your copy today!

About Cutting Edge:

Trey DeBolt is a young man at the crest of life. His role as a Coast Guard rescue swimmer in Alaska offers him a rewarding job and limitless adventure. Then a tragic accident alters his life: during a harrowing rescue, his helicopter goes down.

Severely injured, DeBolt awakens in a seaside cabin in Maine, thousands of miles from where the accident occurred. His lone nurse lets slip that he has been officially declared dead, lost in the crash. Back in Alaska, however, Coast Guard investigator Shannon Lund uncovers evidence that DeBolt might still be alive. Her search quickly becomes personal, but before she can intervene, chaos erupts outside a cabin in the wilds of Maine.

The nurse who has been treating DeBolt is brutally killed by military-trained assassins. DeBolt is only saved when a bizarre vision guides him to safety. Soon other images appear, impossible revelations that are unfailing in their accuracy. As he runs for his life, DeBolt discovers he has been drawn into an ultra-secret government project. The power it bestows is boundless, both a gift and a curse. Yet one thing is certain: Trey DeBolt has abilities no human has ever known.

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This sale ends 12/9/19.

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New Releases: 8/20

New Releases

Happy New Releases Day! Here’s what went on sale today.

Assassin’s Revenge by Ward Larsen

Image Place holder  of - 6On a sunny dock in Gibraltar, Slaton returns to the sailboat he shares with his wife and young son to find them missing. The only clue to their whereabouts is a cryptic message: If he wants to see them again, he must eliminate an obscure scientist working for the International Atomic Energy Agency. Slaton races to Vienna to unravel the scheme.

Half a world away, a small team of ISIS operatives arrives in North Korea. It is comprised of two suicidal jihadists, one technician, and the caliphate’s only officer with naval experience. Their mission: to reestablish the group’s relevance by undertaking a shocking strike against America.

From Europe to North Korea to the Pacific Ocean, Slaton finds himself entangled in a deadly nuclear game. Working against him are a band of suicidal terrorists, supported by a North Korean government that is about to implode. That slate of actors, however, face something even more lethal.

A devoted father and husband—one who happens to be the perfect assassin.

Inch by Inch by Morgan Llywelyn

Image Placeholder of - 98In Inch by Inch, book two in the trilogy, the residents of Sycamore River have only just adjusted to the end of the Change. Until the morning people notice that metal starts to behave oddly.

It’s dissolving.

The world is pushed into global war, and a small band of Sycamore River survivors only have one another. They have to survive the unthinkable.

The Murder List by Hank Phillippi Ryan

Place holder  of - 17Law student Rachel North will tell you, without hesitation, what she knows to be true. She’s smart, she’s a hard worker, she does the right thing, she’s successfully married to a faithful and devoted husband, a lion of Boston’s defense bar, and her internship with the Boston DA’s office is her ticket to a successful future.

Problem is–she’s wrong.

And in this cat and mouse game–the battle for justice becomes a battle for survival.

The Murder List is a new standalone suspense novel in the tradition of Lisa Scottoline and B. A. Paris from award-winning author and reporter Hank Phillippi Ryan.

Turning Darkness Into Light by Marie Brennan

Placeholder of  -80As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, Audrey must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

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On the Road: Tor/Forge Author Events in August

Your favorite Tor/Forge authors are hitting the road in August! See who’s coming to a city near you this month.

Max Gladstone, Empress of Forever

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Tuesday, August 6
Housing Works
New York, NY
7:00 PM

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire

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Tuesday, August 6
Housing Works
New York, NY
7:00 PM

Mark Oshiro, Anger Is a Gift

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Wednesday, August 7
Books of Wonder
New York, NY
6:00 PM

Nathan Makaryk, Nottingham

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Tuesday, August 6
Barnes & Noble
Orange, CA
7:00 PM

Wednesday, August 7
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA
7:00 PM

Heather Webber, Midnight at the Blackbird Café

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Thursday, August 8
Joseph-Beth Booksellers
Cincinnati, OH
7:00 PM

Tuesday, August 20
Lyn’s Gracious Goodness
Huntsville, AL
5:00 PM

Wednesday, August 21
Florence Lauderdale Public
Florence, AL
11:30 AM

Ward Larsen, Assassin’s Revenge

Tuesday, August 20
Barnes & Noble
Sarasota, FL
11:00 AM

Hank Phillippi Ryan, The Murder List

Tuesday, August 20
Brookline Booksmith
Brookline, MA
7:00 PM

Wednesday, August 21
RJ Julias Booksellers
Madison, CT
7:00 PM

Saturday, August 24
The Poisoned Pen
Scottsdale, AZ
2:00 PM

Sunday, August 25
Book Carnival
Orange, CA
3:00 PM

Monday, August 26
Anderson’s Bookshop
La Grange, IL
7:00 PM

Tuesday, August 27
FoxTale Book Shoppe
Woodstock, GA
6:30 PM

Wednesday, August 28
Vero Beach Book Center
Vero Beach, FL
6:00 PM

Thursday, August 29
Orlando Public Library
Orlando, FL
6:30 PM

Cora Carmack, Rage

Tuesday, August 27
Mysterious Galaxy
San Diego, CA
7:00 PM

Thursday, August 29
The Neverending Bookshop
Edmonds, WA
6:00 PM

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