Saturday, June 26, 2021

Introducing Nathan Grant!

Hi all, here's a progress report on my latest thriller projects!  I'm happy and relieved to have finished the last of my major revisions for the latest Natalia Nicolaeva novel, Mystery Girl.  It's off to the editor now, and on schedule for it's July 24th release.  I'm feeling good about this one, and hopeful that it will live up to the other books in the series.  This iteration finds Natalia matching wits with a mysterious band of kidnappers in Budapest and beyond.

I'm also excited to announce that I've started a whole new series, following a former Army Ranger and CIA operative named Nathan Grant.  Just like Natalia, trouble seems to follow Nathan wherever he goes.

The American is due for release in October, but I've got a rough draft of the first chapter that I can share here, for anybody who is interested.  If that includes you, then read on!


 The American - Chapter One

A cold wind blew in across the frozen sheet of ice that was the Baltic Sea in winter as Nathan Grant walked with hands tucked deeply into the pockets of his wool coat. To his left were the weathered wooden buildings of the Kalamaja neighborhood, home to a mix of working-class Estonians, retirees and hipsters. To his right was an empty field, with piles of concrete rubble dusted in snow. Beyond that, the frozen sea stretched to a dark and dusky horizon. Nathan was here to meet a contact, though the meeting place itself left him feeling disconcerted. He’d have preferred the typical park bench, or maybe a table in the back of a quiet cafe. Nathan was a company man, however. He did what was

required, though that didn’t mean he had to like it.

When he arrived at the gate to Patarei Prison, he found that it was open just a crack, as he’d been told to expect. Patarei was infamous in the Soviet days, and remained in operation from 1920 until 2002. It was now an unlikely tourist destination in the summer months, though empty and abandoned in winter. As he slipped through the opening in the solid metal gate, Nathan had to admit that his contact possessed a wicked sense of humor, under the circumstances. The man was Yuri Kuznetsov, a member of the Russian opposition. This wouldn’t be the first time they’d met. In fact, Nathan was the officer who first recruited Kuznetsov, several years earlier. They’d kept a low-profile relationship ever since, with Kuznetsov occasionally providing useful information when it suited his own cause. Both sides had similar objectives, which included the destabilization of the current regime, or at least the ability to know what they were up to. Kuznetsov had his own sources inside the government, who had thus far proven reliable. Now he had something new to share, and Nathan Grant was to be the courier for that information.

When he’d entered the grounds, Nathan checked his watch. It was 2:45 on a winter afternoon. Nathan didn’t like the setup from the start. This seemed to be the only entrance, and thus the only exit. If things went south, he could end up trapped in this place. As a former Army Ranger, he’d have preferred to be carrying, but that’s not how things worked in the CIA. They didn’t want him shooting up the place. That could create an international incident, and yet his adversaries didn’t always play by those same rules. Nathan was early, by design. He wanted to take a look around, to make sure they didn’t have any uninvited company. Instead of heading directly for the meeting point in the yard, he opened a door to a large brick building and ducked into what was one of several former cell blocks. The temperature wasn’t any warmer inside. Indeed, a dampness hung in the air, seeping through to his bones. Nathan made his way down a long corridor, with cells lining either side. Behind the bars, peeling paint and filthy cots were covered in dust. Peering into one cell he saw a small, rusted toilet protruding from the floor in the back. The walls were plastered with pictures of women, cut from the pages of decades-old pop-culture magazines. It all conveyed a desperately sad existence, but a man would do what he could to stave off the loneliness and despair. Right now, Nathan couldn’t afford to let his mind wander. He continued forward and then up a set of stairs. On the third floor, he came upon the prison surgery, still equipped with an operating table and a rusted array of overhead lights. On a counter nearby was a set of instruments, all set to slice into their next victim. Opening a drawer, he saw a collection of rusty scalpels. Lifting one, he wrapped it in a torn bit of rag and dropped it into a pocket. You never knew when something like this might come in handy. Flashing backwards, he couldn’t help but see what must have happened here, decades earlier, with prisoners strapped to this table while being cut open by doctors unfit to practice anywhere else. Nathan continued on until he came to a window overlooking the empty prison yard down below, covered in snow and ringed by tall, rusty fences topped with razor wire. A pair of benches was set into concrete along the fence, beyond which was the vast expanse of the sea. In the distance, he saw the headlights of cars and trucks moving along an ice road across the frozen Baltic. From this view, Nathan didn’t like the meeting place any better. This spot was far too exposed. He could simply walk away. He’d call his boss at Langley and tell him to renegotiate the arrangements. But then, he was here now. The chance might not present itself again anytime soon, if ever. He was due to fly out that very night.

Two minutes before the meeting time, a figure appeared in the yard below. The man stopped at the edge of the square and took in the scene, peering from right to left and back. He was tall and thin, with a winter coat, scarf around his neck, and a knit cap on the top of his head. Yuri Kuznetsov. Nathan plunged his gloved hands into his pockets as Kuznetsov ducked into the wind and walked forward, turning his back to the sea and taking a seat on one of the benches, hands on his knees. From Nathan’s perch up above, he scanned the area, looking for any additional signs of movement. He saw none; just this solitary man, sitting alone on a bench and waiting.

Nathan moved back along the corridor and then down the stairs once more before emerging this time into the yard himself. He saw Kuznetsov stiffen, straightening his back as Nathan approached. The man was nervous, clearly, and he had every reason to be. This was someone who had enemies of the worst possible kind. If the Russian authorities found out that he was talking to the CIA, he wouldn’t last the week. Hell, he probably wouldn’t last the day. Nathan drew close and stopped a few feet away. “Hello Yuri. You couldn’t have picked a warmer spot, could you? Indoors, maybe?”

I wanted to make a point.”

Clearly.” Taking a seat beside his contact, Nathan’s eyes once again moved left to right, peering into the prison windows surrounding them. Still nothing. “What have you got for us?” Nathan was eager to get this meeting over and done with. His hotel had not only a Jacuzzi, but a sauna, too. Either one sounded awfully good right now. Maybe he could get an hour in, to defrost before he headed to the airport.

I have a favor to ask.”

A favor, huh?” Nathan was skeptical, but it wasn’t his job to make any judgments. “What is it?”

We want to arrange for a prisoner swap.”

Nathan scratched at his cheek with one hand. “What prisoners? You’re going to have to spell it out.”

Yes, of course.” Kuznetsov was an anxious man by nature. He didn’t want to linger here any more than Nathan did. From his demeanor, he seemed to expect that his request would be denied, but still he took a deep breath and pressed forward. “As you undoubtedly know, the leader of our movement is behind bars. Reports are that she is seriously ill. We are afraid that she won’t survive much longer in this condition. In the meantime, your government is holding the captured Russian spy, Sergei Federov. We request a swap, Federov for Anna Petrova.”

More than anything else, Nathan now felt annoyed. Angry, even. This whole meeting was a colossal waste of his time. “Why on earth would my government agree to an exchange like that? If we give up Federov, it’s going to be in exchange for one of our people, not one of yours. Not even Anna Petrova. Let me tell you, Yuri, you should know better than to bring something like this to me.”

Of course, we anticipated this response.”

So what the hell are we doing here? There’s a sauna back at the hotel with my name on it.”

We have additional information to throw in the pot.”

This better be good.”

Oh, it is good. Yes, sir. This is information you’d do anything to get your hands on.”

Fine, spill it.”

No, no,” Yuri managed a laugh. “It’s not going to work that way.”

This is all a little bit too much for me. If you have something to share, go ahead, but if not, then I’ll be on my way.”

Did you ever wonder why you’ve lost three officers in the last two years? Was it a concern for you that two of your colleagues merely vanished in Belarus and a third was found dead in Ukraine?”

What do you know about that?” Alarm bells rang in Nathan’s head. This conversation was taking a turn he hadn’t expected.

We know who blew their cover.”

Nathan turned to better take Kuznetsov’s measure. What he saw was a man with a narrow face, pale skin and a thin mustache. This was a pencil pusher, a desk jockey, not a man of action, and yet his demeanor was deadly serious. He did know something, apparently, or at least he believed that he did. Whatever the information, it would need to be verified. It was entirely possible that the FSB themselves had planted it, but that was for the analysts back at Langley to sort out. “You’re telling me there’s a mole?”

That’s precisely what I’m saying.”

Where? In the agency?”

I’m not at liberty to disclose anything further at this stage. Not until we have an agreement.”

You understand, I can’t make that kind of decision myself. All I can do is take your request back to my boss.”

Yes, I understand.”

If your information is valid, how do we know that this person won’t be tipped off? It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. If the mole finds out what you’re up to, the FSB finds out, end of story. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but surely you’ve thought of that.”

I trust you will do what you can to protect me, to keep your source, as you say, ‘close to the vest.’”

You can’t expect us to make a swap like this based solely on your word, Yuri. We’ll need something more.”

Kuznetsov reached into his pocket and pulled out a small flash drive. He handed it to Nathan. “Like I said, close to the vest.”

Nathan took the drive. “When will we meet again?”

Arrange for the prisoner swap. We will be in contact.”

I’ll pass that along.”

Of course. Good day to you, then.” Kuznetsov gave a slight bow of the head and then rose and began walking across the yard, back toward the cell blocks and the front gate beyond. Nathan watched him go, fingering the flash drive in his left hand before sliding it into his own pocket. If it was true that the Russians had a highly-placed mole, that would indeed explain a great deal. One of those officers lost in Belarus was a close friend of Nathan’s. They’d joined the agency at the same time, and trained together. If his identity had been up for sale, then none of them were safe. Even now, Russian intelligence might be stalking Nathan’s every move. He scanned the prison windows once again, one block at a time. From the shadows on the third floor, he thought he spotted movement. Nathan’s adrenaline spiked as he sprang to his feet. “Yuri!” he shouted a warning, but it was too late. A single shot rang out and Kuznetsov collapsed to the ground.

Nathan bolted forward, straight toward the cell block until he was flat up against the bricks. With bars across the open windows up above, the shooter wouldn’t be able to get an angle on him here. He couldn’t reach out the window, nor see directly below. Kuznetsov’s crumpled body was only a short distance away but Nathan saw blood streaming across the snowy ground, the man’s eyes staring blankly toward the heavens. He was already gone.

Keeping close to the exterior of the building, Nathan scooted around toward the front gate, angry at himself for ever getting trapped here in the first place. When he reached a corner, Nathan peeked around and saw the gate ahead of him, some thirty meters away. If he made a break for it, he’d be exposed. According to CIA protocol, he was here to collect information, period. His bosses at Langley would tell him to get out, however he could: to protect himself if necessary, but avoid engagement if possible. But then there was his Army Ranger training. In the services, he’d learned hand-to-hand combat, and put it to use fighting terrorists in the urban environment of Mosul. It wasn’t in his nature to simply run away from a fight. Instead of making a break for it, he took the scalpel out of his pocket and unwrapped the bit of cotton cloth. Clutching the handle in the fingers of his right hand, Nathan slid quietly through an open door and into the prison block’s interior.

After moving to the stairwell, Nathan crept down toward a basement until he was out of sight, then listened carefully. At first all he heard was the sound of the frozen wind, whipping through the empty corridors. Where was the assassin? Had he taken another set of stairs? But then came the faint sound of boots on concrete. Somebody was coming down. Nathan waited. Closer and closer came the boots until they’d reached the ground level. The noise paused, but only for a moment, and then continued as the assailant made his way toward the exit. Nathan could easily just let him go. It was what his bosses would expect, but nobody was going to murder Nathan’s contact and simply get away with it. He waited until the man had passed and then Nathan burst upwards from the stairwell. A man in black clothing spun around, clutching a rifle in both hands, but he didn’t have time to fire it. Instead, Nathan lunged forward with the scalpel, plunging it into the man’s left shoulder. Their eyes met, and Nathan saw in his adversary, first shock at this unexpected development and then fury. The man pressed forward with his gun, trying to knock Nathan off his feet, but this was a fight to the death and Nathan Grant would not go down that easily. The two men grappled with the barrel of the gun, each trying to wrench it free. With his right foot, Nathan swept out the man’s left leg and they both tumbled to the cold, hard tiles, still struggling for control of the weapon.

The assailant managed to get position, rolling on top of Nathan and placing the barrel of the gun across his neck, cutting off his breath. Nathan’s eyes opened wide as he stared face-to-face with the man. If he lived through this moment, the man’s face would be seared into his memory forever. His adversary was young, perhaps in his late 20s, with hair cut short in the style of a military recruit. As Nathan’s air was quickly depleted, he summoned all of his strength to push the gun upwards and away. He’d nearly passed out when he managed to roll sideways, knocking the man off. Nathan released the gun with his right hand and grabbed the handle of the scalpel once more, pulling it out and then stabbing again, and again. Screaming in pain, the assailant let go of the gun and scrambled to his feet before stumbling off down the hallway.

Nathan gasped for breath, filling his lungs before scrambling up and following after. When he reached the doorway, he saw the man squeezing through the front gate and out. “Let him go,” he heard a voice inside his head, but he wasn’t about to listen. Instead, he rushed forward and moved through the gate himself. On the other side he spotted the man sliding into the passenger seat of a silver Peugeot. The door slammed shut and the vehicle raced off down the road. Nathan ran a few steps after until he spotted an electrician standing beside a power pole, his work truck idling nearby. Wasting no time, Nathan jumped into the driver’s seat, popped the truck into drive and took off in pursuit.

Traffic was light on this cold and icy afternoon, but Nathan weaved around a few other cars before he was on the Peugeot’s tail. They wouldn’t expect him in this work truck, though they’d figure it out soon enough. Nathan stepped on the gas and bashed into the Peugeot’s rear bumper, sending it fishtailing down the road. He saw the passenger looking back at him. The man raised a pistol and began to fire. Nathan swerved, but he needn’t have bothered. With multiple stab wounds already, the man could barely aim, other than to take out his own rear window. Nathan hit them again before the car picked up speed, then braked and took a hard right turn, nearly sliding into a drainage ditch. The chase continued as the Peugeot raced toward the frozen sea.

When he’d made the turn himself, Nathan saw the ice road up ahead, leading across the great expanse of the Baltic toward a distant offshore island. The Peugeot didn’t slow as it left the mainland and raced onto the ice. Nathan was going to have a hard time keeping up in this bulky truck, but it wouldn’t stop him from trying. He hit a small dip where the land met the sea, bounced in the air, and slid left, then right before regaining control. After swerving around an oncoming car, he flew forward after the silver car moving ahead in the distance. Berms of snow hemmed in the road on either side. Nathan saw an accident coming before it even happened. Directly ahead of the Peugeot was a slow-moving plow. Further along the road, a tanker truck was headed their way. The Peugeot driver tried to pass the plow, but as he raced headlong into oncoming traffic, the tanker bore down on him, horn blaring. Nathan let off the gas of his own vehicle as he watched it play out. At first it looked as though the Peugeot might just make it. The vehicle cleared the front of the plow, but they were moving too fast. The car drifted slightly to the left, then corrected to the right, but their speed was too great and like a slow-motion video, the driver lost control until they were spinning straight down the center lane. The tanker driver hit the brakes, sending the truck skidding sideways. Nathan was two hundred meters away when the vehicles collided. An enormous fireball rose into the dusky afternoon, followed by a concussive blast that rippled out across the ice until it hit Nathan’s truck, launching him into the air. When the shock wave passed, he pulled to a stop and then climbed from the cab. Ahead, he saw the wreckage of the Peugeot wedged beneath the flaming tanker. He hear a loud cracking sound as a gaping hole opened in the ice. The driver of the plow ran past on the way to shore as the tanker truck sank into the sea, pulling the Peugeot along with it.

Nathan took the piece of cotton rag from his pocket and walked back to the work truck. Very carefully, he wiped his prints off any surface he might have touched, including the door handle, shift knob and steering wheel. Then, he turned and walked toward shore, wondering how he was ever going to explain this one to his bosses.

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