A Shadow Operatives Thriller (Book 2)
Qaanaaq, Greenland, One year ago
The lone figure watched the private submarine rise from the depths, a craft that looked like a curvy concept car blended with a submerged rocket ship. He tightened the fur hood on his down parka and set off from the dock, nosing his one-man skiff through the bay’s biting cold.
As he drew closer, he saw two men fighting on the topside of the sub. A loud bang interrupted the purr of his outboard motor and echoed across the bay like the crack of a calving glacier. The target’s body slipped into the frigid waters with a muffled splash.
“Sorry you had to see that, sir.” Savić’, his security chief, tucked away his snub-nosed revolver and held out his bearish paw to help his boss on board.
“All part of the deal.” His breath formed a cloud. “Let’s leave the skiff and go below.”
They descended the hatch into the belly of the sleek private craft on loan from the Compact. “S’way,” Savić grunted. The visitor understood the shorthand for This way and followed his security chief forward to the bow.
As they entered the Observation Salon, a man dressed in a white uniform and officer’s cap shot to his feet, greeted him, and shook hands. “Honored to have you aboard. Captain Jan Kjellin, commanding officer.”
“The honor is mine,” the visitor said. “They call me Lucid.”
“Lucid. That’s clear as a bell, isn’t it?” The captain turned to Savić. “And the other fellow you were with?”
“He had to leave,” Savić said.
Lucid took in his surroundings. He had been on many cramped, godforsaken subs, but this room resembled a five-star hotel suite. Recessed lighting, leather sofas and seats, flat-screen TVs, and full bar. Instead of portholes, the room had four reinforced picture windows for a first-hand look at the arctic depths.
The captain moved toward the doorway. “Your chief scientist is down below.”
The captain guided Lucid and Savić down a carpeted hallway past a sleek dining room with pendant lights that swayed in unison as the sub began to move. Lucid captured video footage with his Eyecam as he stepped through the vessel.
They were out of Internet range and it would be impossible to live-stream the action for the Chairman. He felt an enormous sense of relief wash over him. Apart from sleeping, it was the first time in months he wasn’t always on.
The captain made small talk as he led them down a stairwell to the bottom deck. Lucid was pleased the captain didn’t seem to notice his artificial left eye—or was polite enough not to mention it. This model, version seven, appeared so lifelike that it often passed for the real thing. His Eyecam was already taking data readings. The exact geo coordinates of his location. The direction of true north. The amount of carbon, oxygen, and argon in the surrounding air.
“Here we are,” the captain said as they arrived at a small room marked Immersion Chamber. “I’ve been instructed to be accommodating—within reason.”
Lucid and the captain entered while Savić remained outside. The room was bare except for the butter-yellow deep-sea probe glistening in the LED lighting, held in place by steel rods on a metal track. Lucid’s people had flown out to modify this next-generation bathyscaphe. It had a large oval window, protruding metal arms, and an array of “specimen catchers” in front—large titanium containers custom-tailored for the mission.
Two men were inside the probe arguing about something. Adam Bashir, their chief scientist, wagged his finger at a fair-haired submariner.
Bashir spotted him, opened the hatch, and climbed out. “Good to see you, Lucid.”
The crew member also exited the submersible and introduced himself. “Systems engineer Erikson, sir. I’ll be piloting the craft.”
Bashir ignored the young submariner. “I’m going alone.”
“Not happening.” Erickson looked adamant.
Bashir turned to Lucid for support. “This is unacceptable. Tell them.”
“Kasparian promised us secrecy,” Lucid said.
“And that you shall have,” the captain said. “I often accompany Erikson on these deep-water missions. It’s a two-man undertaking. But this is no standard geological expedition, is it?”
Lucid’s face gave away nothing, like the ancient rock formations on the seabed floor.
“Bit of a mystery, is it?” Erikson’s palm brushed the side of the probe. “If we’re going that deep, I need to know what we’re hunting.”
Lucid knew they’d get only one shot at this, and the Chairman would not accept failure. At the Lab, Bashir had mastered the computer simulation they’d created for the expedition. But Lucid knew how wrong things could go at the bottom of the ocean.
“Erickson will pilot,” Lucid decided. “Bashir will co-pilot and direct you to our target. The details of the hunt should not concern you.”
The captain pivoted to face the two outsiders. “Listen here. I’ve made over forty expeditions to the deepest, darkest cracks under the sea, from the Mariana Trench to the hydrothermal vents below the North Pole.”
Lucid tried to stop him. “You and your people are on a need-to-know—”
“I’ve seen stranger creatures than maybe any living man. Giant zombie worms. Dragonfish. Sea pigs. Spookfish that come up to you like wraiths of the abyss. Seadevil anglerfish that swum straight up from hell.”
The captain moved close to Lucid’s fake eye. “If there’s one person on board you need on your side, it’s the captain.”
Lucid considered this. If anything went wrong at the crushing depths they planned to explore, he would need the man’s full cooperation. He grabbed the captain by the shoulder. “Let’s step outside.”
They exited the chamber, walked past Savić, and huddled in a stairwell.
“I’ll read you in, Captain. But you need to keep this strictly under wraps. None of your men can know.”
The captain gave a slight nod.
“Captain. Our quarry is the oldest form of life on earth.”
The captain paused, then smiled as if he understood. But how could he? He couldn’t possibly fathom that today’s voyage would change the face of the world.
The clock is now ticking. Project Ezekiel is underway. The only question is how many millions will die.
Southampton, New York, Present day
The young woman stepped into the gazebo and let out an unbridled laugh at the absurdity of the scene. The multimillion-dollar estates lining Shinnecock Bay in the Hamptons. The tight-fitting party dress she had to borrow for the night. The whole idea of heading to a gala where she’d be honored for killing a man.
“Who am I? What am I doing here?” Kaden twirled on her expensive heels. “Come on, this is nuts. Let’s go back to Brooklyn.”
“We can take a ride share back.” Gabriel followed her into the gazebo. “But I have a surprise for you first.”
They sat on the lone bench with its unobstructed view of the water. He took her hand as the raspberry sun slid into the bay.
I’ve got to admit, she thought. This is pretty damn idyllic.
A cool breeze prickled her skin and tousled the short blond hair she’d started to grow out. Gabriel slid his hand over her eyes and folded something cold into her palm.
“Happy two-month anniversary,” he said.
She opened her eyes to see a heart-shaped rose quartz pendant attached to a silver chain necklace.
“Oh my God, Gabriel. It’s gorgeous.”
He clasped the thin necklace around her neck. “Seriously, look at you. Smart, sexy, strong, athletic. You could break me in half if you wanted.”
She smiled. She had no intention of breaking Gabriel in half. He had his own sexy thing going—kind brown eyes, short beard, an open mind. Not a kickboxer like her, but buff enough.
Gabriel showed her both sides of the pendant. “It’s a wearable. You can put that photo of your mom in the front. There’s a digital display on the back. Just click twice to let me know you’re thinking of me.”
She held it up, clicked twice, and heard a ping from the phone in Gabriel’s suit jacket pocket. She leaned over and they kissed. When she opened her eyes, he slipped on the pair of smartglasses he’d borrowed from her apartment.
“I thought I could meet Amelia tonight,” he said.
She hesitated. “I haven’t shown her to anyone yet. Why do you want to meet her?”
“Can’t meet your parents. I figured Amelia’s the next best thing.”
I’ve been taking it slow with Gabriel, but is it time to get serious? Took till I was twenty-three to find someone who gets me. Maybe it’s time to stress-test the relationship.
Kaden used her smart contact lenses and aircracked a hotspot from one of the nearby estates. “Here goes nothing. Amelia, I’d like you to meet Gabriel.”
She blinked three times and Amelia materialized, perched atop the gazebo railing to the right. She wore a dust-colored aviator’s outfit with a gold aviator’s pin. She smiled, her face framed by a pair of goggles and a loose-fitting aviator’s cap draped over a tangle of curly brown hair. Her scruffy brown boots dangled a foot off the ground.
Amelia turned to face them. “Hi, Gabriel. Nice to meet you.”
Gabriel’s eyes grew large. He stared for a moment, turned to Kaden, then back to Amelia. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Earhart. I’ve never met an artificial intelligence before. I’m a little … wow.”
The Wi-Fi signal was temperamental but decent enough. Amelia appeared at full opacity—completely solid, even though you couldn’t touch her. Don’t want her to look like a ghost or it might freak out Gabriel.
“Nice of you to escort Kaden to the gala,” Amelia said.
“We’re still deciding whether to go,” Kaden broke in. “We only have a minute.”
She was nervous about what Gabriel might ask. Amelia knew nearly everything about her. Every detail about her abused childhood. Every file she’d hacked from her estranged grandfather. Every covert op she’d orchestrated.
Haven’t shared those little details with Gabriel yet. Working my way up the trust ladder.
Amelia hopped down, strolled across the gazebo, and leaned against a post. She fished a pack of cigarettes from her purse and lit one up. “You know, dears, back in my day, I’d be swinging almost every weekend. But this is the first party Kaden has invited me to. It looks absolutely rip-roaring.”
“Looks?” Gabriel appeared mystified. He turned to Kaden. “Can she see … everything?”
Kaden laughed. “Amelia can travel anywhere there’s an Internet connection.” She pivoted to face the AI. “I’m guessing guests are already sharing photos and videos online. That right, Amelia?”
“Yes, they are. Silly habit, if you ask me. They’re at a party!”
Kaden had programmed Amelia to stay true to her persona and never mince words. Modern social niceties could come later.
Amelia sat down on the steps of of the gazebo and fixed Gabriel with her gaze. “Tell us one thing about yourself that Kaden doesn’t know.”
“Amelia, that’s personal,” Kaden chided.
“It’s all right.” Gabriel thought about it. “Let’s see. I had a childhood nickname.”
“I’ve heard worse.” Let’s not go there. “Why Chip?”
“I fell on the playground during third grade and chipped my front tooth. My family couldn’t afford to get it fixed.”
“Aww. You have an amazing smile.” Kaden poked the bridge of his smartglasses with her forefinger. “We should go. Say goodbye, Amelia.”
Amelia began to glitch in and out as the bandwidth strained to keep up with her. “So great to meet you, Gabriel,” she said with an extra dose of gusto. She straightened, dusted off her lap, and turned to Kaden. “Such a nice young man. And such a stud in bed last night!”
“Oh my God!”
Kaden felt her face flush hot red as she realized she’d forgotten to take out her lenses or put Amelia into sleep mode during her date last night. She reached up and snatched the glasses from Gabriel’s nose.
Gabriel’s expression turned from surprise to a satisfied smile. He lunged for the smartglasses and called out, “Glad you enjoyed the show!”
Kaden stalked off, mortified beyond belief. She removed the earpiece from her right ear—she didn’t want to hear any of Amelia’s excuses—and nearly flung it into the reeds along the bay before thinking better of it and stashing it in her pocket. Her lenses provided the visuals, but the two-way earpiece let her communicate with Amelia.
Gabriel caught up with her, enjoying the moment a little too much. “I liked her. She reminds me of you. Direct, honest. Knows more than she lets on. Bit by the wanderlust bug. So are we going to the gala?”
“Three more blocks,” she said. She needed a change of scenery. And she’d given her word.
As they walked along the lane, fall colors danced in the trees. They passed mansions with killer views of the bay—big estates with pools, tennis courts, sprawling lawns, and lights winking in the twilight. She was already working out what adjustments she’d need to make to Amelia’s social settings.
But first she’d have to make it through tonight.
She was still processing the fact she’d killed one of them—a member of the one percent.
Part of her wondered if they’d honor her tonight. Or arrest her.
Southampton, New York
Kaden and Gabriel reached the address, a two-story mansion with a long paved driveway, manicured garden, and more windows than she could count. The noise from the party spilled out to the front sidewalk.
“The last honoree is here,” a woman at the doorway announced to someone inside. Then to Kaden: “Welcome, dear. I like your outfit. So svelte and tribal.”
“Thanks.” She’d borrowed something feminine from Annika, figuring her usual anti-fashion uniform of ripped jeans and faded tees wouldn’t cut it tonight. She stepped into the marbled foyer beneath a crystal chandelier. So this is how the rich live.
A dark-haired young boy held up a silver tray containing smartglasses—she saw most of the guests were wearing them. “Smart parties” seemed to be the trendy new thing in the Hamptons.
Kaden declined—her smart contact lenses would do fine. Her AI had already tapped into the open network and paired with the gala’s cloud so she could see the same data as the other guests. And more. She suspected she was the only party-goer with an AI companion.
“Nice little soirée.” Gabriel eyed the main room, which could hold both of their apartments and then some. Rows of recessed lighting graced the lofted ceilings. Guests milled about as white-uniformed waiters served drinks and canapés. On the far wall, images of the honorees rotated on a digital display.
They moved into the buzzy maw. Kaden counted six leather sofas, four floor-to-ceiling windows, one baby grand piano, three modern sculptures, five wall murals, and a single gleaming spiral staircase leading to a marble balustrade lining a second-floor walkway.
Where a large man with a thick dark mustache seemed to stare at her.
“Champagne, Miss?” a waiter offered. Kaden and Gabriel each grabbed a flute. She glanced up. The man was gone.
“Isn’t that the mayor?” Gabriel nodded toward a gaggle near the fireplace. “And what’s her name, the actress.”
Someone tapped her on the shoulder and she turned to see a silver-haired woman in a blue designer outfit that probably cost more than Kaden made in a year.
“Kaden, so glad you could make it. I’m Marian Shorenstein.” They shook hands. “It was so brave what you did, saving all those poor girls.”
She still felt uneasy talking about how she’d freed all those young women held captive at the fertility center in Dallas. She became an instant cult hero online. But the D.A. was still deciding whether to bring charges against her.
“It happened so fast. I just reacted.”
“We need more warriors like you on the front lines.”
“Thanks, but I’ll be happy to disappear into the shadows after tonight. I need some humdrum in my life.”
The only reason she attended was that the award came with a stipend. She’d decided to turn the prize money over to Jamie, the sixteen-year-old call girl who made it through the Dallas ordeal. Kaden knew what it was like to grow up in a household without loving parents.
A member of the wait staff pulled Marian Shorenstein away, so Gabriel and Kaden chatted with two other couples before wandering out the rear door. The party extended into the sweeping back yard and around the swimming pool, lit up in a blue glow.
Gabriel leaned over and kissed her on the back of her neck. She felt a flush of warmth and gave him a look that said, I can’t wait to undress you later.
“I don’t know what to say to these people,” she confessed.
“Just be yourself. They’ve probably never met a real-life action hero before.”
She elbowed him in the ribs. During the past six weeks with Gabriel, she’d been revisiting a lot of her assumptions. She’d always thought of herself as a lone wolf. No boyfriend or girlfriend, free of entanglements. Having a plus-one was changing the equation.
Gabriel took her empty Champagne flute. “Be right back with a refill.”
She turned and followed the pathway, illuminated with tiki torches. At the end of the pool, the path led to an open-air patio with a large fire pit aflame with orange embers. Wooden chaises were set back a safe distance from the fire flanked by an island stand topped with bottles of liqueurs and wines. She was away from the crowd now, and she fished the earpiece from her pocket to check in with Amelia.
A tall figure approached from the shadows. The man from the upstairs balustrade. He had a large build, with broad shoulders and an Eastern European look. His dark eyes danced like shimmering glasses of red wine in the reflection of the tiki torches. His name and occupation appeared in the bottom third of her field of vision. The gala’s attendee list identified him as Lazarus Wojcik, a cardiologist from Prague.
“Ms. Kaden Baker, it’s an honor to meet you.” He extended his immense palm and she shook it.
“Actually, I don’t use my last name. Or a courtesy title.” The gala people never asked her.
“Forgive me.” He moved closer. He had a half-moon scar on his forehead and a musty odor. “I am still getting used to this new reality. Using glasses to learn the name of a person across the room. Strange.”
“You were staring at me before. From the banister.”
“I was admiring your golden hair and purple highlights. And your … body decorations.” His gaze moved from her hair to her lip piercing and settled upon her left shoulder.
“An equality tattoo,” she said.
“These are rare in my social circles.”
Amelia appeared in the corner of her field of vision. “Kaden, something about this fellow doesn’t add up. No record of a cardiologist by that name in any hospital database in Europe.”
“What can I do for you, sir?” Kaden asked. She wondered why he’d be using an alias.
“I have an urgent private matter to discuss with you. Let’s walk toward the fire pit for some privacy.”
He grabbed her by the elbow and tried to steer her away from the other guests.
She resisted. “Wait. What’s this about?”
“Please. Come this way. Don’t make a scene.”
He wrapped his thick, bearlike fingers around her biceps and pulled her toward the darkness.
“Hey!” She jerked her arm free, more angry than frightened.
To her left, behind a row of chaise lounges, she saw a second man approach at seven o’clock. Bear Man grabbed her by the shoulders while the shorter one, lithe like a cat, came up from behind and pushed her head downward to expose her neck. He was holding a syringe.
Her special ops training kicked in. She yanked away, leveled a powerful kick to the second intruder’s groin, and snatched the syringe from his hand. She tried to plunge it into his neck, but he grabbed her wrist, so she used her free hand to grip the syringe and snap it in half. Their faces were inches apart. He had long, stringy blond hair and a ruddy, sunburnt face. He reminded her of the bad date she’d had with a surfer.
She grabbed Surfer Dude’s arm, used his weight to whip his body over her back, and crashed him to the ground. Two against one, not fair, Surfer Dude.
Guests around the fringes of the pool scattered. Someone called out, “Security!”
Kaden turned and saw Bear Man coming at her. She grabbed a hardwood lounge chair, hoisted it, and put her full weight behind it, smashing it into his upper torso. He fell, dazed but still conscious.
She reached down, grabbed the hem of her fancy dress, and ripped it straight up to her hip to get better lift and leverage. Annika’s gonna kill me for this.
From the ground, Surfer Dude grabbed her ankles and toppled her backward. He shot to his feet and dragged her by the ankles toward the fire pit. “I’ll teach you some manners.”
“Accent from a region of rural Belarus,” Amelia informed her through her earpiece.
Surfer Dude relaxed his grip for a second and reached for two metal roasting sticks from the stand next to the fire pit. He snagged a glowing orange rock and brought it toward Kaden’s face.
Just as she felt the heat on her cheek, she surprised him with a hook kick to his left kidney from her supine position, a move she learned at boot camp. The heated rock toppled to the side. Surfer Dude shrieked in pain. She regained her feet and followed with a foot jab to his solar plexus. Her kickboxing instincts took over, and she was glad she was wearing her black steel-toe flats.
She saw Bear Man reach for something inside his jacket. Before he could grab it, she spun and delivered three lightning-quick strikes. She started with a side kick to his rib cage. She planted, turned her body to generate more power, then delivered a left-handed blow to his liver. The coup de grace was a roundhouse strike to the left side of his head that sent him crumpling to the ground.
She heard a wheezing noise behind her and saw Surfer Dude coming at her again. She took three steps to her right, pulled a tiki torch out of the ground, and smashed it across his back.
Black oil from the torch splashed onto his jacket, setting him on fire. Surfer Dude shrieked—the howl of a wounded animal. He tried to shed his jacket as the blaze grew. He lunged into the pool, sending a surge of water onto the concrete pavement.
She turned to face Bear Man. He drew his gun, a Browning Hi Power by the look of it, and aimed it at her. “You’re coming with me.”
“You’ll have to kill me.” She started toward him.
“Kaden? What the hell!” Gabriel exploded out of the back entrance and ran toward them. The Champagne flutes in his hands smashed to the pavement. A pair of security guards followed on his heels.
As Gabriel came closer, Bear Man flashed her a smile, whirled, and took aim at the onrushing figure.
“No! Shoot me!” Kaden screamed. She charged him. I’ll kill you, you son of a bitch!
She launched herself and delivered a compact uppercut to his right arm to throw off his aim. Her blow arrived a split second too late.
Bear Man shot Gabriel square in the forehead.
— J.D. Lasica