LYNN SHOLES & JOE MOORE
© 2013 by Lynn Sholes & Joe Moore
All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.
Any unauthorized usage of the text without express written permission of the publisher is a violation of the authors’ copyright and is illegal and punishable by law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the authors’ imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Published by Stone Creek Books
Edited by Jodie Renner (www.jodierennerediting.com)
Interior design by Joe Moore
Cover design by Joe Moore
Cover image © 2013
Lynn Sholes dedicates this book to Ashleigh Oliver, Mac McKee, Alexis Arce,
their spouses and children.
And for Tommy. Thank you. Love you.
Joe Moore dedicates this book to Friendly Finley, mentor extraordinaire
The authors wish to thank the following for their
assistance in adding a sense of realism
to this work of fiction.
Cary E. Moore
Former Special Agent
United States Air Force
Department of Defense
Office of Special Investigations
Frank N. von Hippel PhD
Former Assistant Director for National Security
White House Office of Science and Technology
Professor of Public and International Affairs
Branch Chief Digital Forensics
Office of Information Security
Department of Homeland Security
Transportation Safety Administration
John C. Darrin
Radiological Emergency Preparedness Consultant for
Federal, State and Local Government Agencies and commercial enterprises.
“And Abraham stretched forth his hand,
and took the blade to slay his son.”
~ Genesis, 22:10
Chapter 1 – Betrayal
Three years ago, North of Kirkuk City, Iraq
I lay flat on the ground beside the five-thousand-year-old Assyrian settlement wall and watched the smuggler through my night vision goggles. My partner, OSI Special Agent Aaron Knox, was concealed among the ruins fifteen meters to my right.
“Maxine, what’s he doing?” Aaron’s voice whispered in my earbud.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Looks like he’s fumbling with some boxes in that van.”
Just moments earlier, the smuggler had emerged from the farmhouse, glanced in my direction as if he sensed my presence, then headed toward an old panel van twenty meters away. With it parked facing away from me, I had a back view of him as he opened the cargo doors. He kept looking toward the road a hundred meters to the east, probably anticipating the arrival of the transfer truck any moment.
A faint odor of cattle manure drifted from a nearby dusty pasture as I turned my head to the left. A ridgeline ran at an angle across the back of the property, making a perfect hiding place for the Iraqi National Police commandos waiting there.
I shifted my focus back to the van. The smuggler, a twenty-year-old Sunni Kurd, remained at the rear by the open doors. At such a young age, he had already made a name for himself on the black market as part of a smuggling ring that pilfered Iraqi artifacts out of the country through the neighboring Sulaymaniyah Province. Recently, he’d gotten his hands on a few of the valuables looted from the Baghdad National Museum during the chaotic start of the war back in 2003. Our intel said the treasures included several small Sumerian relics and a number of gold and silver pieces dating back to 2000 BC. The smuggler’s take would be hundreds of U.S. dollars, but as the goods moved up the food chain to the ultimate private collectors, they could be worth millions. Because the artifacts were believed to have been originally stolen by U.S. Air Force personnel, the Office of Special Investigations had sent in Aaron and me.
“Truck.” The voice in my earbud was now the Iraqi police captain.
I heard it before I saw it. Through the night vision goggles, its headlights glowed green—a ghostly image of a lumbering farm truck appeared over the crest of a hill and headed toward us along the old Kirkuk highway. The Iraqi police would perform the actual apprehension. The two of us were there to observe and assist in the recovery and identification of the artifacts. Nothing more.
I glanced back at the van. “Shit!”
“Max, what’s wrong?” Aaron asked.
“He’s gone.” The van doors stood open like a gaping mouth, but the smuggler had vanished.
I swept the space between the van and the house. Empty.
Back to the van. Dark interior. No movement.
“Maxine?” Aaron’s voice was louder.
I looked in the opposite direction and spotted our target hauling ass on foot toward the road. “The little prick is bailing!”
I saw the blurry image of the smuggler running across the flat, barren space toward the highway at a full sprint. He gripped the straps to a bulging backpack, and I realized he had duped us with the cargo van full of cartons. Instead he had all the goods on him. Chances were, nothing of value would be in the van.
“Agent Decker?” The captain was waiting for my signal.
“Hang on.” I spotted my partner running behind the smuggler. He was within a meter of being able to tackle the target.
But something wasn’t right.
I stood and signaled to the Iraqi commandos to begin their assault.
“Aaron,” I called, “Take him down! Stop the bastard!”
My earbud filled with orders from the captain shouting to his men. They were already swarming over the ridge.
Shots came from the van. Someone had been hiding inside. The shooter seemed to be ignoring the commandos and instead was firing at me. What the hell? I dropped behind the ancient wall and pulled my SIG Sauer.
Pieces of clay burst from the wall as slugs slammed into my hiding place. How do they know my exact location? I heard the Iraqis yelling. More shots. Within seconds, the sound of automatic weapons was everywhere. The guy in the van was relentless.
Crouching low, I maneuvered around the wall toward where my partner had been positioned. New shots fired. I popped up my head for a second and determined they were coming from the farm truck. It had stopped beside the highway, and at least four men were firing at the commandos from the truck’s canvas-covered bed.
Whoever was still in the van was spraying bullets across the top of the ruins to keep me occupied. Then I saw him jump out and start to make a run for the truck before the commandos got to him. I moved to the end of the wall, rose, and fired three shots at the gunman. He dropped and didn’t get up.
Several Iraqis swarmed the house while the rest headed for the farm truck, their tracers lighting up the night. I took off running to back up my partner but immediately caught the attention of someone in the truck—bullets were now coming at me. The commandos had to seek shelter behind the van as the men in the truck laid down cover fire for the smuggler’s escape.
“Aaron, get down!” I yelled into the mic. He was running in the open area. I felt my belt to make sure I had a fresh clip ready before racing along the perimeter of the pasture. I had to help him before he got himself shot.
The smuggler veered off the direct course toward the highway to avoid the line of fire, with Aaron right behind him. They left the open space of the pasture and weaved through the ruins. I took advantage of their detour and sprinted straight toward them for an intercept.
Just before they emerged from the last ancient clay structure, they charged right into me.
I aimed my gun and the smuggler froze. Aaron bent over, hands on his knees catching his breath.
“Aaron!” A voice shouted above the gunfire coming from the truck.
It was American. Not Iraqi.
I ripped off my goggles and glared at my partner. “Who’s that? How does he know your name?” The smuggler sidestepped. “Freeze!” I ordered. “Aaron, who’s that in the truck?” I had to shout for him to hear above all the racket. “What’s going on here?” The pieces were coming together and I thought I already knew the answer, but I desperately wanted to be wrong.
“This has nothing to do with you, Max. Just turn around and walk away.” Aaron straightened. “This is my ticket out.”
“Have you forgotten that you’re a federal agent?”
“Just back off. You’re not supposed to get hurt. That was part of the deal.”
“Deal? What deal? I’m not backing off. This isn’t going to go down. Not like this.” Bullets pelted the opposite side of the structure protecting us.
The voice from the truck roared out my partner’s name again.
Aaron still hadn’t caught his breath, and his words came in a staccato rhythm. “Don’t make me do it. I don’t want to shoot you.”
The truck engine revved.
“Maxine, I’m sorry—”
As he brought his gun up I fired twice.
“You bitch!” The scream came from the direction of the truck, but closer.
The American. Without my goggles, he was nothing but a dark form rushing at me.
The smuggler took off.
Then a flash.
The bullet struck my side just below my vest. Another slammed into my right thigh. The pain was white hot.
I dropped to my knees and fell forward.
The odor of the cattle manure seemed stronger this close to the earth.
Or was it the smell of death?
Chapter 2 – The Visitor
Present day, Big Bear Lake, Colorado
As I crested a hill, half a kilometer from my cabin, I spotted a Jeep in the distance. For an instant, the last orange from the setting sun glinted off its shiny paint even as it sat partially hidden in the shadows of the Douglas firs below.
Quickening my pace, I slipped along the path, protected from view by the Gambel oaks and mountain mahogany. I wanted to get a better look at the vehicle.
The Jeep might belong to hikers or wilderness lovers fancying a view of the Rockies in springtime. But this area was not a popular spot, which is one reason I had chosen the location—for solitude. And the signs declaring private property were hard to miss where the dirt road to my place turned off the county blacktop. The Jeep either belonged to a lost soul or to someone looking for me. The latter made me nervous.
The trail leveled off as I came down to the southern end of Big Bear Lake. The path hugged the lake’s perimeter in a sweeping arc. Tall blades of grass and sedge kept me partially concealed. Combined with the onrush of night and my dark clothing, I was just a shadow.
I came to the edge of the clearing that cascaded from my cabin down to the lake. Crouching behind a thick fir tree, I poked my head around and scanned the rear of the cabin. That’s when I saw him.
The guy was dressed in jeans and a heavy jacket with a baseball cap pulled low over his forehead. Dark hair. Maybe six foot one. Trim. Between 160 and 170 pounds. He walked slowly along the back porch. Judging by the way he moved he was agile and I bet fit beneath the bulk of the jacket.
At each window, he paused to peer in. As he reached the back door, I instinctively went for my sidearm, but the SIG Sauer had long been replaced with a five-inch hunting knife and a Maglite. I hadn’t touched a gun since I shot Aaron Knox.
Time to improvise.
I waited until he cracked open the door and entered. Keeping low, I moved through the grass and took advantage of an occasional tree to evade the clearing until I made my way to the side of the cabin. With extra care, I eased open the storm door and slipped into the basement.
It was pitch-black and dank smelling—I’d had every intention of cleaning and reorganizing it, but it was still down near the bottom of my to-do list.
I kept my flashlight off. Moving blind, I felt my way around boxes, tools, and general junk. A rattling thud came when I bumped my shin on an old bedframe. “Damn!” Had he heard both the collision and my curse? When I found the thick supports of the wooden stairs, I slid underneath and waited.
The soft creaking of the floorboards told me he was in the kitchen. His steps were slow and light, obviously exercising caution as he searched each room. With my old F150 parked out front and the back door unlocked, it was no mystery that I was home or not far away. Since he wasn’t ransacking and rummaging, I concluded that he was not there to burgle. That left one alternative, and I didn’t like it.
Narrow slits between the floorboards lit up as the intruder swept his light around each room. He approached the door to the basement.
At the sound of the door hinge squeaking above me, I pushed back against the wall.
He took the first step on the stairs, and his light beam came to rest on an old refrigerator sitting next to a workbench. The Frigidaire didn’t function, and the tools on the bench were worn and rusted, left behind by the former owner.
The second step creaked and then the third, slow and easy. A dark leather hiking boot settled on the step level with my face. The next step down, I grabbed his boot laces and he flew forward, head first. With a grunt, he hit the dirt floor hard. I ran out from under the stairs and before he could move, I had my knee planted firmly in his back at the base of his neck and the butt end of my Maglite pressed into his skull.
“Move and you’re dead.” I stabbed the Maglite against his head for emphasis, hoping it felt like the real thing.
“Maxine, sweetheart, is that any way to greet your long-lost love?”
Chapter 3 – Kenny Gates
Big Bear Lake, Colorado
“What did you expect me to do, Kenny? You broke into my home and sneaked around like a burglar. We’ve got electricity up here in the backwoods. Next time, ring the doorbell. Or call first.”
I leaned against the porch railing with my arms folded and watched him baby a cut on his forehead with a Ziploc bag of ice. He sat in a high-back rocking chair and glanced up at me with his apologetic hazel eyes.
“Knocked at your door. No answer. Car was here. You live way out in the middle of bum-fuck Colorado. Anything could have happened to you. I was just checking the place out to make sure you were okay. Of course I loved the extra element of surprise. ”
“I’m sure you adored your little perk of scaring the hell out of me.”
“So you were going to blow me away with a Maglite?”
“If I had to. It was locked and loaded with double-As.”
Kenny smiled as he shifted the plastic ice pack to a new position on his head and looked at the lake in the distance. The stars and fireflies were coming out. “Nice place, Max. You’ve done good.”
He was right. This was what I needed after the long recovery and rehab from my gunshot wounds in Iraq, not to mention the additional hell of going through endless grilling by the Inspector General’s Office on the shooting of Aaron Knox. The actual gunplay took a few seconds—the inquiry seemed to go on forever. It didn’t take much to push me over the edge. I decided to retire after being shot at three times during my eighteen years as a Special Agent with the OSI.
The first time was an airman who stood in the parking lot of the Eglin Base Exchange and decided to shoot his girlfriend and any other females within line of sight. I was three cars over. He got the girlfriend and my driver’s side window.
Second time, I was conducting an interrogation at MacDill on an officer caught smuggling stolen Peruvian artifacts out of Florida. He came to my hotel room and knocked. When I asked who it was, he fired three bullets through the door. One grazed my arm. I went to the hospital and he went to prison.
The first two weren’t anything like Kirkuk. There was also the mental and emotional wrecking of having shot my partner and friend. To make things worse, I was then under suspicion of involvement in the smuggling operation. That nailed my decision to leave the OSI. I didn’t just retire, I fled. I needed to get out. And I needed to go someplace and be alone for a long time. Big Bear Lake was perfect.
Kenny and I had a long history. We’d met when I joined the OSI. I was only 23 and green. Kenny, on the other hand, was an experienced agent and a good one. While others let me flag and flounder, Kenny found time to coach me through the maze of my new job. He was my personal mentor, even though our fields were different. He was an OSI Computer Crimes Investigator specializing in computer forensics, while mine was the antiquities black market. If a crime was committed by military personnel, we were usually called in to investigate. Kenny had to deal with everything from kiddy porn to falsifying documents, while I dealt with stolen art objects and smuggling.
“Must be boring up here.” He put down the ice pack and took a long pull from the Coors.
“Not when I’ve got people sneaking up on my place and breaking in.” I took a drink from my beer. “And why did you park your Jeep up the road? You’re lucky I don’t like guns anymore.”
“My intent was to happily surprise you. But when you weren’t around, I got worried. I screwed up, okay? So sue me.”
I shook my head. “And people wonder why I got out of the military.”
“What do you do up here all day?”
“Well, I do some painting. Lots of reading. And I’ve started writing—”
“Really? What kind of writing?”
“Fiction. I’ve got a few ideas for a novel. I write longhand, then type my work into my laptop. It’s fun. They say everyone has at least one book in them.”
“Am I in your book?”
I resisted a smart reply and zapped him a give me a break look.
“Just asking,” he said.
“And I fish. There’s some decent trout fishing in the lake. A boat came with the house, so I go out on the lake once in a while. I like being around nature. As a matter of fact, I was coming back from checking on a litter of foxes about a kilometer from here when I saw your Jeep. The mother’s been missing for a few days, and I was worried about the kits. But mom showed back up today, although she looked the worse for it.”
“Probably a slut fox.
“Or a battered wife.”
“Touché,” Kenny said, hoisting his bottle.
“So, now that we’ve had the obligatory idle chitchat and the complimentary beverage, why are you here?”
He set down the beer, rubbed the dark stubble on his chin, and let his face go serious. “We want you back.”
I stared at him, wondering if this was someone’s idea of a joke. “Back? Back to what? Kenny, there is no back. There’s only forward. I’m moving forward with my life. This is my life. Look around you. What could be better than this? There’s nothing the government could possibly offer that would entice me to return to active duty.”
“Max, you’re living in downtown boredomville. OSI is in your blood. You’ve had your R&R. Now it’s time to get back to work. Catch some bad guys. Find an ancient relic or two. Do your magic. I know you.”
“Well, for once, you’re wrong. This is me. And I like me.” I walked a few paces away and turned toward the lake, now only a dark mass under a brilliant, star-filled sky. I rubbed my upper arms, enjoying the brisk Colorado mountain air before turning to Kenny. “There’s nothing that could bring me back.”
“Don’t be so sure.”
I didn’t like the way he said that. He understood me well enough to know what blew my skirt up. Maybe he was just playing with me. He had an annoying habit of doing that. “What do you mean?”
“We think we’ve got a line on the Blade.”
I felt a tingle in my belly and my pulse quickened. Suddenly, that old rush of the chase shot through me. Just to clarify, and with a great deal of anticipation I asked, “What blade?”
“The Blade of Abraham.”
Chapter 4 – The Road
Austria, 18 months ago
“Debbie, check this out,” she heard her boyfriend call out.
“Where are you?”
“Over here.” She looked toward the sound. He was waving at her from among the deep shadows of the forest. He stood in knee-high brush about twenty paces from the remote mountain hiking trail.
“What’ve you got, Scott?” It took her a few moments to make her way through the brush. “And why did you have to come this far just to take a leak?”
“Took advantage of the moment to see what the woods are like off the trail.” He stooped and lifted the edge of a large piece of metal off the ground.
“So what’s your big discovery?”
“I found this underneath some brush and ground cover.” He pulled the plate up so she could see the bottom. The faded lettering was barely visible among the rust and corrosion. “What’s it say?”
Debbie stared at the words. She’d learned German from her mother and maternal grandmother. It was her interest in her heritage and Scott’s graduate studies in history that had inspired their summer backpacking trip through central Europe.
“It’s German,” she said. “Basically says to turn back, that if you go on you’ll be shot.”
“Turn back from what?” He glanced about at the dark forest as it followed the curve of the mountain. “There’s nothing here.”
“Well, nothing now,” she said. “But by the looks of its condition, the sign must’ve been around for years. Chances are the only reason it’s still here is because it’s made of metal rather than wood.” She leaned forward. “Hang on a sec.” Bending, she gave the sign a closer inspection. “Hold the edge up higher. There’s something else near the bottom.” She brushed away the dirt and caked-on debris. “Wow!”
“I’ll hold it while you take a look.” Tilting the heavy metal plate upright, she waited until he came around. “See it?”
“A swastika. I’m not surprised. The Nazis took over Austria in 1938. Near the end of the war, Hitler had a plan to make a last stand in the Alpine areas of Austria, Bavaria, and northern Italy. They built a number of heavily fortified bunkers to house the army. When that didn’t work out, some say they used them to hide all their looted treasure.”
Debbie dropped the sign. “I wonder if we’re close to one of those treasure bunkers?”
“Plenty of the stuff stolen by the Nazis is still missing. But it’s not likely we’ve found anything after nearly seven decades. Let’s get back on the trail or we won’t make it to the next hut by sundown.”
“Now it’s my turn to have to pee.” She waved with both hands, motioning for him to turn away. “I’ll just be a minute.”
Debbie headed for an area a few meters further into the woods. Coming to the top of a slight rise, she looked down onto what she thought was an irregularity below. The brush there was less dense, less lush, and it seemed to form a pattern, like a trail through the thick forest. “Scott,” she called out. Her voice sounded small among the thick oaks and sycamore maples.
She ambled down the slope. Kicking at the brush and vines, she noticed the ground felt especially hard and rugged beneath the scrub here. Ripping out some of the plant growth revealed a swatch of cracked and pitted pavement.
“A road,” Debbie said. “An old road.” So that was why the brush was less dense. It struggled to survive atop pavement.
Looking around, she saw more evidence of crumbling pavement riddling the area. The remnants of the road continued through the forest up a gradual incline to the left until it curved out of sight.
She wondered if Nazi transport trucks loaded with gold bullion or rare art objects had once traveled along it. A scrabbling sound and a grunt caused her to turn.
Scott had lost his balance as he came down the embankment and landed on his butt.
“That was graceful.”
“What are you doing?” He brushed off the dirt before resecuring his backpack. “All of a sudden I turned around and you were gone.”
“Look what I found.” She gestured like Julie Andrews on the mountaintop in The Sound Of Music.
“What?” Scott said, eyeing the surroundings.
“This.” She pried loose a piece of the pavement and held it up. “A road. It must date back decades. Certainly hasn’t been used in a long, long time.”
“That’s impressive. Now can we get back on the trail? The hut is hours away. We’re losing valuable time.”
“But don’t you think this is so cool? You found the old Nazi sign, and now I’ve discovered a hidden road. Think where it might lead. A German treasure bunker could be right around the next bend.” She turned, adjusted her backpack and started walking. “Come on, let’s explore a little.”
“Not a good idea.”
“Why? It’s headed in the same general direction as the trail. If we get bored, we can work our way west and jump back on.”
Reluctantly, he fell in beside her. “We’re going to wind up sleeping on the ground, mark my words.”
“Where’s your sense of adventure? Everyone takes the trail. We’re the only ones following this.”
“It’s just an old road.”
“Yes,” she said, picking up the pace, “but one with a Nazi warning that beyond this point we’ll be shot. You won’t find that kind of adventure on the trail.”
They followed the road through the forest as it wound around the side of the mountain. After a couple of miles the trees thinned enough for them to see the rugged incline of the mountain.
“I still don’t think we should have taken this side excursion,” Scott was saying when they rounded a bend and came to an abrupt halt.
What was left of the pavement seemed to run right into the side of the mountain—at least right into a large pile of rocks and debris.
“Landslide?” Debbie asked.
He shrugged. “If it was, it happened a long time ago. No wonder the road isn’t used anymore—it doesn’t go anywhere.”
“So it went somewhere but there was this landslide and now it ends here.”
“Now that we’ve solved the mystery of your phantom highway, can we try to work our way back to the trail? If we move fast, we might be able to make the hut before nightfall.”
“Do you think it continued on past the rockslide?” she asked.
“It doesn’t look like there’s anything beyond the rocks.” He walked to the far edge of the debris pile. “I don’t see any road beyond. My guess is that it ended right here.”
“That makes no sense,” Debbie said, heading over to the opposite side of the slide. “Why build a road that dead-ends on the side of a mountain?”
“Deb, we really need to get a move on.”
Ignoring him, she passed the base of the rockslide and wandered into the trees and underbrush. She didn’t have to look back to know Scott was following her. His grumbling was loud and clear.
“Why are you obsessing over this place?”
“I’m curious, that’s all.” She climbed over an outcrop by pulling herself up using low hanging branches. “Don’t you think it odd?”
“What? That someone a long time ago built a road that dead-ended into the side of a mountain?”
“That’s just it.” Standing on a rock, she turned to face him. “I think the road runs into the mountain.”
“You mean like a tunnel?”
“Maybe. Why would the Germans threaten death to anyone who came up here if they didn’t have something to hide? We could be right on top of your treasure bunker.”
“So what are you looking for?”
“What’s the one thing you need if you’re in a bunker inside a mountain?”
“I don’t know. Flashlights? Schnapps?”
Scott stared at her for a moment before nodding. “So you think if there’s a bunker, there might be some kind of ventilation?”
“Maybe. It shouldn’t take too long to find out.” She started climbing over the next grouping of rocks.
He looked at his watch. “You might as well take your time, now. There’s no way we’re going to make it to the next hut. We’ll sleep back down on the road and head over to the trail tomorrow.”
“Be looking for some unusual feature.”
They spent the next twenty minutes investigating, climbing, parting vines and weeds, searching the landscape for some anomaly. At last, just as she was ready to give it up, Debbie spotted something. “Over there,” she said pointing and heading toward her sighting.
Scott climbed to join her.
“Look at this,” she said, pushing the undergrowth aside to expose a man-made stone and mortar slab. “I should be a detective rather than an engineering major.” Protruding up from its center was a metal tube about thirty inches in diameter with a cone-shaped lid mounted on top. The lid sat at an odd angle, having been the victim of wind, rain, rust, and more than one falling rock.
Looking inside the small space between the cone lid and the tube, Scott saw a layer of straw and twigs from generations of bird nests. “Well, I’ve got to admit, you were right. Somewhere inside is a tunnel or bunker, and this probably leads to it.” He looked at his girlfriend. “But finding it isn’t enough, is it? You’re still not satisfied, are you?”
She slipped her backpack off and tested the strength of the cone-shaped lid supports. “Of course not. Now we go inside the mountain.”