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Authors: Craig Schaefer

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BOOK: Red Knight Falling
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NINE

The outside light strained to push its way through sheets of double glazing, trapping the cabin in perpetual dusty twilight. A moment frozen in time, like the motionless naked body handcuffed to a bed frame in the middle of the room.

I moved closer to get a better look at his face. It was Lawrence, and Lawrence was dead. He hadn’t died quickly. Or easily. His abductors had taken the mattress from one of the camp beds and strapped him tight against the metal bed frame. Off to one side, the jerry-rigged contraption they’d used on him lay discarded beside a half-empty bucket of water: a car battery, connected by jumpers to an insulated wooden handle with a copper wire–wrapped sponge on the tip.

“In South America, they call this the
parrilla
.” I nodded at the wire bed frame. “Like a barbecue grill.”

Jessie didn’t say anything. She stared at the corpse, deep in thought, her turquoise eyes glinting in the gloom.

I pulled back Lawrence’s blood-spattered lips. His front teeth were crooked, the enamel shattered. Broken from how hard he’d clenched his jaw and ground his teeth under the electric current.

“Minimal lividity,” I said, lifting one of his legs and inspecting the skin. “He’s practically still warm. This is recent.”

I checked his left wrist. The face of his watch was shattered, the bent dials frozen at 7:22—presumably the hour his kidnappers stormed his cabin. Still, his offhand comment when he was handing out our gear came back to me:
“My wristwatch possesses similar functionality.”
I thought it might have been a joke, but I still slipped it off his wrist and pocketed it.

Jessie circled the bed frame on the other side. She lifted his right hand, showing me the ragged stump where his thumb used to be. I remembered the thumbprint protection on his laptop computer.

“They were working on him all night,” Jessie said, “and they’ve got all the data on his laptop, too. Harmony . . . we have to assume they got
everything
. We’re burned.”

We double-timed it back to the lodge, with two goals in mind: to get the rest of our team out of there safe and sound, and to get as far away from Deschutes National Forest as we could, as fast as we could.

“Negative,” Linder told us, his face a silhouette on Jessie’s phone. “Complete your mission.”

We huddled over it side by side, back in the hotel room, with Kevin and April at our backs.

“Sir,” I said, “I repeat, our cover is
blown
. There’s no reason to suspect Agent Lawrence didn’t break under torture. He knew our names and our faces. That means our opposition—who we still haven’t identified—
also
knows our names and our faces. We can’t operate here. You need to extract us and send in another team.”

“There
isn’t
anyone else,” he said.

“Sir?”

He ticked off names on his fingers, his silhouette blurring on the screen.

“The rest of Beach Cell is deep undercover, and pulling out any more of their members would be a death sentence for the rest of the team. We haven’t found new recruits to replace Redbird Cell in the wake of their liquidation in Miami. Panic Cell is off the grid and can’t be reached. That leaves
you
, Agents. Your team isn’t just our best hope for dealing with this situation, it’s our
only
hope. Complete your mission.”

“How the hell do you suggest we do that?” Jessie demanded. “Our scientist and his data are
gone
. How are we going to find the Red Knight without them, overlooking—for the moment—that an unknown number of enemy operatives are going to be gunning for us out there?”

Linder leaned closer to the phone cam, eyes narrowed.

“You do what you always do, Agent Temple, and you make it work. You and your team have earned a reputation for pulling off impossible victories. Tonight, you need to earn it all over again. The Red Knight is falling, and that
thing
is coming down with it. If you don’t manage to contain it, nobody else will.”

“What about the leaks?” I asked. “Somebody posted information about the Red Knight to the deep web, luring civilians to the area for reasons unknown. Then somebody pierced Agent Lawrence’s cover. Sir, we have a serious info-sec problem here, and with all due respect, it’s our lives on the line because of it.”

“I’m looking into that,” Linder said. “In the meantime, once again: roll your sleeves up, get as dirty as you have to, and
make it work
. On that note, I’d very much like you to track down Agent Lawrence’s killers. Keep one alive for retrieval and interrogation.”

“And the rest?” Jessie asked.

He tilted his head, pausing as he considered her question.

“Terminate,” he replied, “with extreme prejudice. Linder out.”

The screen went black.

“He can’t be serious,” Kevin said. “There’s no way. We can’t do this.”

Jessie dropped down onto one of the beds and spread her arms.

“We can’t
not
,” she said. “Okay, floor’s open. All ideas are welcome. Including the crazy ones, because I think we’re gonna need one or two of those to pull this off.”

April steepled her fingers, thinking. “Our enemy knowing our faces—and not giving us the courtesy of an introduction in kind—is troubling but not insurmountable. What do we really need to track down the satellite? Exactly what we lost: the telemetry data, and an expert to interpret it.”

“Wait a second,” Kevin said, holding up a finger. “The data’s out there in the wild, waiting to get scooped up. I mean, that’s how Bette and her friends ended up here in the first place: I guess whatever got leaked is enough to go on, if you know what you’re looking at. Get me a laptop with Internet access and I’ll have it in five minutes flat.”

“But we
don’t
know what we’re looking at,” Jessie said, “and we don’t know any rocket scientists who can help us out.”

A smile rose to my lips, unbidden. I couldn’t help it.

“Yes,” I said, “we do. Jessie, given that you’re officially our team leader, I’d like to ask permission to commit a gross breach of Vigilant Lock security protocols.”

Jessie gave me a wolfish grin. “Look at Harmony, getting wild over here. I
like
it. As team leader, I do
not
give permission, because we never had this conversation and whatever you’re about to do will not appear in my official report.”

I hit the speed dial on my phone. After three rings, a familiar warm voice washed over the line.

“Talbot Cove Police Station, Deputy Winters speaking. How can I help?”

“Hey, Cody,” I said.

“Harmony?”
He paused. “I . . . didn’t know if I’d hear from you again.”

“Told you that you would.”

“I know, just . . . it was a weird time, when you were here.”

That was an understatement. In the space of an hour, Cody had gone from a blissfully innocent small-town cop to surviving a demon attack and witnessing a man getting dragged into the pits of hell. He’d earned his scars, just like the rest of us.

I didn’t think about Nyx’s attack when I thought of him. I mostly thought about that night I sat alongside him on the hood of his squad car, leaning into his arm and looking up at the stars.

“Your degree’s in aerospace engineering, right?” I asked. “Astronaut stuff?”

“Sort of. I mean, I never graduated before I had to come home and take care of Mom, but I came pretty close.”

“So if you had, say, data on a satellite in a decaying orbit,” I asked, “could you estimate where it’s likely to crash down?”

He chuckled. “Have to dig up my slide rule, but sure, I could make a good go at it.”

“Cody,” I said, “how would you like the chance to serve your country?”

He didn’t hesitate. “Tell me where I need to be.”

“I have to warn you: this isn’t going to be safe. And that’s kind of a massive understatement. You’d be standing in for an operative who didn’t make it.”

“Didn’t make it?”

“We’re not the only people on this hunt,” I told him. “The agent who was supposed to track the satellite for us—he’s dead.”

Something shifted in his voice. A new, harder edge. Something urgent.

“You’re in danger?”

“Cody, I’m always in danger. That’s part of the job.”

“But there are people out there,” he said, “gunning for you? Right now?”

“Fair to assume, yes.”

“Then tell me where to meet you. I’ll be on the next flight out.”

“You’re sure?”

“Harmony,” he said, “
please
. Let me help you.”

Jessie pressed a credit card into my hand. Her Oceanic Polymer platinum AmEx.

“I’m going to read you a credit-card number,” I told Cody. “Fly to Roberts Field in Oregon. Rent a car when you land, and I’ll give you directions to meet up with us.”

Once I hung up, Jessie whistled.

“That’s not just breaking the regs, that’s shredding ’em.” Jessie looked over at April. “I think I’ve created a monster. And I kinda like it.”

“You heard Linder,” I said. “We’ll do whatever we have to. And right now, what we have to do is go mobile. We’re sitting ducks in here.”

“Seconded,” April said, leading the way to the door.

The four of us took the elevator down. We weren’t expecting a full house in the lobby, almost every guest in the hotel milling around in confusion. And we definitely weren’t expecting the army to show up.

And yet, there they were.

TEN

The man standing atop the check-in desk was in his early fifties, with a chiseled physique and a receding wave of steel-gray hair. Dressed in crisp camo fatigues, he raised a hand to draw the room’s attention. Four other soldiers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, stood like a wall of muscle between him and the crowd.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he called out, his voice carrying across the room like a veteran stage actor’s, “there is no need for alarm. My name is Lieutenant Colonel Meade of the United States Army, Forty-Second Infantry Division.”

“You getting this?” Jessie whispered. I was already slipping on my glasses, snapping candid pictures of Meade and his men.

“We are responding to a homeland-security incident, farther inside the forest boundaries. The situation is classified. What I
can
tell you is that none of you have been exposed to any radioactive or otherwise harmful contaminants as yet.”

That got the crowd murmuring, a flood of nervous glances and clutched cell phones.

“For your safety, however,” he said, “we must evacuate the area. We’re asking all of you to immediately leave Deschutes National Forest, and not attempt to return until we give the all clear. We strongly suggest you travel southeast on US-20. All westbound traffic on US-20 will be blocked off until further notice.”

If you wanted to cordon off a chunk of the wilderness so that you could—for instance—comb the woods for fallen satellite debris without being disturbed—you could hardly pick a better cover story. All he had to do was drop the magic words—
homeland security
and
radioactive
—and the lodge’s guests were more than ready to check out and drive south as fast as their wheels could take them.

Clever tactic. I’d have to borrow that sometime. Of course, I’d need an army unit to go along with it. A glance to the lobby’s front windows—and the small convoy of camo Humvees lined up outside—told me Lieutenant Colonel Meade wasn’t messing around. We followed the stream of tourists to the parking lot, blending in with the crowd, silent until we got back in the car.

“So
that
just happened,” Jessie said, slipping into the passenger seat beside me and reaching for the seat belt.

“It could be a legitimate response,” April said. “We know data on the Red Knight was deliberately leaked to the deep web. We also know from our briefing that at least one aboveboard government agency is aware of the Knight’s existence. The military might have been dispatched out of concern that the satellite really is emitting some kind of toxic radiation.”

I connected the camera glasses to my phone with a Bluetooth link, shooting off my newest batch of photos to the Bureau. “If he is who he says he is, we’ll know soon enough.”

As I started up the car and eased out of the parking spot, joining an endless crawl toward the interstate, Jessie left a voice mail for Linder and updated him on the latest developments.

“—and we’d really like to not get in a gunfight with the army,” she finished, “so please call one of your buddies in DC and pull some strings before somebody gets hurt.”

She hung up, glowering at her phone.

“You know the only thing more irritating than another black-bag department interfering with one of my covert ops?” she said.

“What?” I asked.

“The legitimate government interfering with one of my covert ops. Can’t talk to ’em, can’t shoot ’em, either. And if we get tossed in jail or a brig, you know Vigilant’s not going to spring us. That’s why we’re called deniable assets.”

“We’ll work around them,” I said. “I say we stock up on camping gear, infiltrate the forest just south of wherever they draw a line, and set up there. Depending on how big a grid they’re searching, and how many men Meade brought with him, it shouldn’t be too hard for us to slip around his patrols. As long as we find the Knight before they do, everything will be fine.”

“You make it sound easy,” Kevin said.

“It might not be easy,” I said, “but it’s closer to easy than it is to impossible.”

Back in Sisters, we paid a second visit to their sporting-goods store and raided the camping aisle. We were the only ones shopping. News of the quarantine had already hit local radio, and from what the check-out clerk told me, vacationers were leaving in droves. More than a few locals had decided to pack up and visit family out of town for a few days, just to be safe.

We loaded up the Ford’s trunk with all the camping supplies we could squeeze in: a couple of tents, sleeping bags, and some propane lanterns for light. Then we turned back around, following the interstate until we saw a trail of brake lights up in the distance.

The military had blocked off US-20, parking an olive-draped troop transport across the road lengthwise and laying out flares. A stern-looking soldier with a bullhorn waved traffic back around, sending everyone back the way we came. I made a U-turn, drove back about a quarter mile, then pulled over at the side of the road.

“Here’s good,” I said. “Whatever perimeter they’ve set up, it won’t stretch south of that roadblock.”

I propped up the car’s front hood. Anyone driving by would figure we’d had engine trouble and walked off to find help. Instead of following the road, though, we left the car behind and hiked into the woods. We didn’t need to go far from the tree line, just enough that our little camp wouldn’t be spotted from the road.

“I detest asking,” April told Jessie, “but would you kindly?”

Jessie tossed Kevin an armload of gear. Then she hustled over and took the handles of April’s chair, tilting her back and helping her over a clump of brambles. We navigated across a sea of fallen leaves and muddy stone, ducking under low, half-bare branches as the sounds of traffic fell away and the wild wrapped around us.

We found a tiny clearing, or at least an open patch of ground just big enough to set up the tents. I dropped the sleeping bags I’d been lugging, rubbing my aching shoulder, and looked up to the sky. Through the tree line, framed by grasping boughs, the sun was on its way down. We made camp under a cold violet sky.

Cody called to let me know he’d landed. “Head up US-20 until you see a Ford Focus parked on the shoulder,” I told him. “We’re about a hundred yards into the woods directly west of there. Don’t stop for anything—time is not on our side.”

“That’s an understatement.” Kevin glanced upward. “This thing is coming down tonight. And . . . it’s almost tonight.”

While we waited, my phone buzzed against my hip with a stream of e-mails from the Bureau’s intelligence branch. The results from my glasses footage were in. No promising hits on anyone at the wine tasting; the crew of UFO hunters from the University of Oregon all popped up, but just as I expected, none of them had a record beyond college transcripts and clean drivers’ licenses. Nadine didn’t pop up at all.

“Got a hit on our corpse from Lawrence’s cabin,” I said, gathering everyone around. “One Emil Boesen. Swedish expat with an Interpol rap sheet. Looks like he’s a freelance gun for hire.”

“Dirty deeds, done dirt cheap,” Jessie mused. We scrolled down his list of known affiliates. And kept scrolling. “Is there anybody this guy hasn’t pulled a trigger for?”

I shrugged. “He wasn’t picky, which doesn’t give us much to go on. He could have been working for anybody.”

The next e-mail was a file photo of Lieutenant Colonel Meade. Except this Meade was a portly sixtysomething with a comb-over. An appended notice read:

 

J. Meade confirmed on-site at Fort Drum, NY, 2 hrs ago. 42nd Infantry NOT repeat NOT cleared for operations in Oregon. No homeland-security operations or training underway in Deschutes National Forest per USNORTHCOM HQ.

 

Kevin held up a finger after I read the addendum aloud. “Er, excuse me. Does that mean what I think it means?”

“It means those aren’t real soldiers.” Jessie checked the load in her Glock. She wore a tight, eager smile. “I think we’ve just found the competition.”

“A brash tactic,” April said, contemplating, “and risky. They must be expecting to sweep in, seize their prize, and withdraw before anyone has time to check their story and contact the real authorities. Unfortunately, we can’t call them
the
competition.”

I thought it through and realized what she meant.

“Unless we got impossibly lucky,” I said, “Lawrence broke under torture. Meaning he told his interrogators everything, up to and including our names, faces, and what rooms we were staying in. But those ‘soldiers’ let us walk right out of the lodge and didn’t even try to follow us. They had no idea who we are.”

April nodded, favoring me with a half smile. “We appear to be sharing these hunting grounds with two rival forces. If the field grows any more crowded, we may need a scorecard.”

The next picture showed “our” Meade, a few years younger and getting his sullen mug shot taken in a California county jail.

“Real name’s Abrams,” I said, reading aloud. “Former associates include . . . wait. I know this guy. I mean, not him, personally, but he’s a professional mercenary. He was with Xerxes.”

“I presume you don’t mean the Persian king,” April said.

“Xerxes Security Solutions,” I said. “Private military corporation, with a track record of taking the dirtier, shadier kind of jobs in the third world. Propping up dictators, harassing ethnic tribes—they made Blackwater look like nice guys by comparison.”

“‘Made’ as in past tense?” Jessie asked.

I nodded. “On my last official mission in Vegas, my target hired Xerxes to watch her back. Their CEO is a nasty piece of work named Angus Caine, former British SAS turned soldier of fortune. Most of his men surrendered when we raided our target’s hotel, but Caine and about twenty of his men slipped away. Xerxes imploded in the scandal, and none of the escapees have been seen since.”

“It appears they’ve found a new master to serve,” April said.

“I was hoping they were just thugs playing dress-up,” I said. “Xerxes is no joke: these men are genuine, trained operators with combat experience. Caine liked to recruit former spec-ops guys; hard-core soldiers who wanted more money and dirtier fights. We’ll have to—”

A branch snapped.

I moved on instinct. Pistol in hand, barrel swinging up to target the sound as I dropped into a crouch. My finger brushing against the trigger.

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