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John Knox and Grace Chu, the incomparable duo of the Risk Agent novels, team up again in the latest international thrill ride from New York Times–bestselling author Ridley Pearson.
When ex–military contractor John Knox receives a text from partner Grace Chu warning that she fears her cover may have been blown while on assignment, he jumps into action. Knox must locate her overseas handlers, convince them of the threat, and then attempt to retrace the well-hidden steps of a woman who had been attempting to determine how one million euros’ worth of AIDS vaccine disappeared, all while eluding angry poachers on a parallel trail.
Corruption isn’t a “problem” in Kenya, it’s the way of doing business. The poaching of ivory from African elephants, driven by insatiable demand from mainland China, fuels constant blood and slaughter. Knox faces police, national rangers, journalists, and safari companies who are each in their own symbiotic relationship with elephants, both good and bad. As the threat from Al-Shaabab militants interferes with his pursuit of Grace, Knox finds himself pitted against the most savage and suicidal fighters in the world. And there’s this woman, Grace, always in his head. His gut. As Grace watches as her civilized self slips away while abandoned in the bush, Knox races against the clock to find her.
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Ridley Pearson is the New York Times–bestselling author of more than two dozen novels, including The Red Room, Choke Point, and The Risk Agent, as well as the Walt Fleming and Lou Boldt crime series, and many books for young readers. He lives with his wife and two daughters, dividing his time between Saint Louis, Missouri, and Hailey, Idaho.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
SEVEN MEN, ARMED with automatic weapons, phosphorusflares and patience, hunkered down on a craggy hilltop, training night-visionbinoculars onto a savanna etched with elephant grass, thornbush and fevertrees. They mentally mapped intersections of game trails and rutted vehicletracks that read in their optics as green-black scars. A few of the mendouble-checked their weapons.
The leader of the men, Koigi, checked his watch. Inforty-two minutes, a full moon would rise directly in front of them. It was anight ripe for killing. Poachers preferred full moons. One could nearly smellthe elephant blood on the warm breeze.
“East, southeast,” spoke Koigi. He was a big, solid manwith exceptionally large hands, a growling voice and an even temper.
Six sets of night-vision binoculars swept to the right.
Koigi breathed in deeply and exhaled slowly. MountKenya’s hilly terrain made for difficult surveillance. Twelve years of lyingbelly-down in the red, powdery dirt of his birth country, of squatting on his haunchesuntil his knees froze with pain, of enduring all the elements, from mountainblizzards to desert dust storms—all to protect the elephant. He’d been hungry.Thirsty. Sex-starved. He’d put much aside to preserve and protect God’s mostnoble creature.
The elephant was Africa. Kill an elephant and you kill apiece of the continent where all life began. To him, Africa was the heartbeatof the world, every elephant a shrine. Anyone intent on executing an elephantdeserved the noose, the spear, the bullet. This philosophy simplified hisexistence, justified his actions. And though he was as hunted by the law as thepoachers were by him, it allowed him to sleep at night.
Their binoculars revealed three adult elephants, theircurving tusks appearing dark through the lenses. The beasts walked nearly trunkto tail as they lumbered silently into the open field.
Two of Koigi’s rangers, uniformed snipers, lay prone. Oneof these was making small adjustments to his rifle scope. The other held aseventeen-thousand-dollar TrackingPoint rifle with a computerized scope. Koigiwas viewing this man’s targeting with his smartphone.
“All good, boss,” the first reported.
“On my command,” said Koigi.
Guuleed, whose ring finger was missing its final joint,signaled the driver to kill the engine.
The tip of his finger had been lost when caught beneath ahook-ended ladder that had shifted as he’d ascended up the hull of a containership in a rolling sea. The missing piece of finger served to remind him toexpect the unpredictable.
Along with the ladder—which had led to the deck of thecontainer ship he’d eventually commandeered—he’d also climbed through years ofblood and glory, scaling the ranks of the lawless and dispossessed to a placeof prominence in a Somali syndicate known as Badaadinta Badah, which translatedas “Savior of the Seas.”
He pressed the talk button on his walkie-talkie threetimes. Three clicks. Five minutes later, he heard three similar clicksconfirming that his team had the elephants in range. He set the radio down ontothe dash of the twelve-year-old Toyota Land Cruiser.
Guuleed quietly climbed out of the doorless vehicle andwaited for six of his men to join him. They were a somewhat sorry lot: young,greedy, hungry, foolish. Sacrificial lambs. Anything could, and did, happen inthe bush. A lion attack. A Cape buffalo stampede. Rangers.
Patting the satellite phone clipped to his left hip,Guuleed silenced its ringer. He didn’t need any interruptions, any reminder theworld was currently upside down. No matter how rich or influential, no manshould threaten another with wholesale slaughter of his extended family, wifeand children included. Certainly not a slant-eyed foreigner. It wasimata—yimeti—gloating over another’s unhappiness. It was a burden no man couldbear.
Guuleed hand-signaled three of his men to the right, twoto the left. He and his driver would hold back. Not a word was spoken as theelectric fence—currently without power—was cut. All movement was silent.Elephants had been sighted by a local tea farmer earlier in the day, headedtoward this, a known watering hole. Guuleed had spread his money around wisely.Given the heat and the water, they would be moving north-northwest. Within thehour, as soon as the moon rose, the prize would be exposed.
One of only a few fifty-year-old bull elephants left inKenya, Grandfather had been previously shot and wounded by poachers and wasdistinguishable by a large tear in his left ear. He was always seen in thecompany of a half-dozen females, and his arrival caused a moment of hushedreverence among Koigi’s squad. The men were prepared to lay down their livesfor the likes of Grandfather.
Koigi spoke Swahili, directing three of his best to takeup a protective position. As his men deployed, Koigi monitored them, first withhis naked eye, then through the night-vision binoculars. Good men, he admiredthem all.
“Boss?” the first of his two snipers asked.
Koigi answered flatly. “Provide cover if engaged.”
The clouds on the horizon lit up like smoke in awildfire. The moon was improbably the size of the sun.
By dividing his small squad, Koigi was taking yet anothercalculated risk. Such strategies could backfire. When the attack came—and itwould come, as his source was reliable—it would be at the hands of anassortment of misguided, greedy locals under the direction of a well-trainedSomali. Guuleed was a pus-oozing sore from across the northern border. Beforean ounce of elephant blood spilled into this beloved soil, Guuleed’s would flowfreely, his head on a pike. Koigi lived for this moment.
“Boss, why does Grandfather not wear a collar?”
“Because the KGA has its head up its ass.” The Kenya GameAgency, along with funding from private conservation groups, had beguncollaring and GPS-tracking several dozen elephants. His men chuckled softly.“But more likely he’s taken too many darts from treating his wounds.”Repeatedly tranquilizing the elephants could turn them aggressive.
When the firefight came, shots rang out, sounding likethe dull popping of firecrackers. It happened quickly—two or three minutes thatfelt like an hour. The bittersweet smell of cordite and gunpowder warmedKoigi’s nostrils. The crack of gunfire sent the elephants running. Bulletswhistled over Koigi’s head. Chips of rock sprayed around him. An elephantdropped, first to its front legs, then collapsed and tumbled in a nauseatingslow motion. Koigi, rifle in hand, screamed—an amateurish mistake. He caught abullet in his vest near his left shoulder. Fell face-first in pain.
Dragged to cover by the ankles, Koigi saw his men kill atleast two, including a driver. An engine revved.
“Retreating,” his man announced.
“Stay with them!” Koigi ordered, but he could hear it wastoo late.
The sound of the engine faded.
“They fought longer than necessary. They could haveescaped with fewer casualties.” Koigi spoke between clenched teeth. “The firstwe’ve seen of this.”
“Desperate,” said his man.
“Yes, but the question is: why?”
Far below the hill, dust rained down onto the woundedelephant as she exhaled her final breath, her tusks spearing the rising moon.
Dear John (that’s a funny way to start a letter),
We have not seen each other in over six months and thefew emails we share are typically little more than simple greetings. I write toexpress my gratitude and appreciation for sharing with me your skills andexperiences. They have taught me well and have provided great opportunity. Ihave gained from these.
I have now completed my first solo exchange, and I ammost pleased to report a success. Perhaps the opportunity for sharing thedetails will arise in the near future. This would be most welcome.
John, as we’ve written to each other, we often joke. Ofcourse. I have no problem with this. Now I must be more serious. I find in myheart both something missing and something fulfilling. Missing, when too muchtime separates us. Fulfilling when we are together. It is a small thing,perhaps. I cannot say. But its very existence interests me. Excites me, even.
Folding the overly creased letter and zipping it into aninside pocket of his windbreaker, Knox failed to appreciate the Englishcountryside’s mid-May blossoms. The breeze rustled branches twisted likearthritic fingers in an all-pink orchard. A pale dawn yawned dully behind asteady drizzle. The silent swipe of the Mercedes’ wiper blades moved out ofsync with the beat of The Killers in his earbuds. His reflection revealed aface hardened by the sun, by the stress of caring for his adult brother’sspecial needs. And by his deep concern over the events of the past twelvehours.
He opened a phone photo of him and Grace, his sometimecoworker, in Istanbul’s Inebolu Sunday market shot a year earlier. He leanedlower and angled himself to check the driver’s rearview mirror, alarmed by hiscurrent state. He looked north of forty, nearly a decade off, enhanced in partby his hair having gone dark due to a long, snowy Detroit winter. He’d lostsome weight, adding lines to his already leathery face. Grace looked outthrough those expressive Asian eyes of hers, modest, subdued. They hid herambition well, disguised her unruly sense of superiority and often unearnedconfidence.
He touched his jacket where he kept her letter. He feltlike he was back in high school. She’d probably tossed his return letter themoment she’d read it. Their contact over the year had amounted to some randomtexts and the occasional video chat, prompted by loneliness or friendship orwhatever force binds one person to another in confusing ways.
Their recent letters—one in each direction—were somethingaltogether different, all the more profound. And now Knox was traveling—all ona hunch. The last-minute ticket had cost a small fortune; leaving his brotherwould cost him sleep.
The cool English countryside was nonetheless in bloom.Forty-five minutes from Heathrow, the Uber car exited the M25 for the A41 andfinally headed west of Northchurch, down a hedge lane called Cocksgrove. Theparallel lines of towering trees gave way to a manor house and a loose-stone horseshoedriveway that fronted an ivy-covered, three-story brick spectacle. A backdropfor a costume drama. Water sprayed over the Italian fountain’s four horsesridden by trumpeting angels.
Knox heaved the oversized brass knocker, forgoing theelectronic call box. Paused. Pounded it down again impatiently.
A manservant answered. A black tuxedo with a white vest.Eight thirty-six a.m. At six-foot-three, Knox towered over him.
“Mr. Winston,” Knox said, stepping past the man and intothe foyer’s cathedral ceiling and checkered marble floor. “Mr. Winston?” Hisvoice echoed. The manservant’s expression did not vary.
“You will find him in the breakfast room, sir.” Themanservant directed with an open palm. “He’s expecting you.”
“He’s what?” Knox moved more reluctantly down theportrait-lined hall. The place was a costume drama cliché. He passed anine-foot-tall Siberian bear rearing on its hindquarters, and Knox hung hissmall duffel bag over the bear’s right forearm without breaking stride.
The manservant picked it off.
Knox stopped short when he saw the man at the end of thelong and perfectly polished dining table. “Sir.”
Graham Winston was far younger-looking than Knox hadimagined. Mid-fifties at the most. Not quite leading-man handsome, butattractive. Strong shoulders, soft hands with manicured nails, Beretta countryclothes, including bush-brown, narrow-wale corduroys and a heavy gray sweaterthat nearly matched his hair.
“You were expecting me?”
“Sit down, please,” Winston said, having stood to shakehands.
“How? Dulwich?” The only connection Knox had to Winstonwas through his Rutherford Risk “control,” David Dulwich—aka Sarge—whocertainly had the means to track his international movement.
“How may I help you? No, no! First, let’s get some foodin you. How’s that sound?”
A footman approached and pulled back a chair. Knox sat. Aplace setting was air-dropped around him by two others.
“Please.” It was poured for him, along with orange juiceand a glass of ice water. Sugar and cream appeared. All this in fifteenseconds. Knox studied the dignified man at the head of the table in silence andsipped his coffee. He had an appetite brewing.
“I tried to reach Sar—Dulwich—but ended up speaking toBrian Primer, who, in typical chief executive fashion, left things fuzzy aroundthe edges. I don’t like fuzzy. I need a couple of answers.”
“Long way to travel for a few questions.”
“Important questions. You wouldn’t take my call, asyou’ll remember.” Winston showed nothing. “Straight answers would beappreciated.”
Again, no reaction.
“Grace and I—Grace Chu, Rutherford Risk—stay in touch. Wedidn’t used to, but you know . . . things change.” He was experiencing theuncomfortable mix of jet lag and coffee. “I guess you could say we’ve becomefriends. So anyway, maybe three or four weeks ago, I caught up to her on avideo call. She was on her phone, Heathrow in the background. Said she wasvisiting a friend of ours. That’s all she said. Well, you’re the only personshe and I share in England, so I understood the context. An operation. Solo.Important, because you’re an important client of Rutherford Risk. I wasn’tinvolved. No harm, no foul. End of discussion. But then her texts stopped. Notthat I get that many anyway. But one a week. Maybe two. You know? Contact. Ofcourse they would stop when she was on an op. I’ve got no problem with that. Iknew she’d make contact when she resurfaced.”
“If you have come to ask me for specifics . . . I don’tmind sharing, if the proper paperwork’s taken care of.”
“I finally got a text,” Knox said. “Yesterday.” Hepaused, taking note. Winston hadn’t expected to hear that. “Yesterday,” herepeated. “London time, at any rate. There are a couple things you need toknow. One, when we’re in the field we don’t send casual texts, unless the opisn’t classified or an atrisk. Texts leave contrails, meaning you can besourced. Two, if you do text or call, you take a number of precautions,including using pre-paid SIM cards, ghost protocols, VPNs. You know most ofthis. So, here’s the situation. Grace texted me from her number. Now, that’sintentional. That’s telling me something. Her text was...
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