Editor: Chelsea Cambeis
Epigraph taken from The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. Public Domain.
Copyright © 2019 Jolene Grace All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please write to the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2019947296 ISBN: 978-1-64397-048-6 (Hardcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-049-3 (Softcover) ISBN: 978-1-64397-050-9 (Ebook) For information, write: BHC Press 885 Penniman #5505 Plymouth, MI 48170 Visit the publisher: www.bhcpress.com
Never attempt to win by force, what can be won by deception. â&#x20AC;&#x201D; Machiavelli, The Prince â&#x20AC;&#x201D;
melia Sinclair was running late for work. She drove through the nearly empty streets of Manhattan, stomping on the brakes at the red lights. She neared East Forty-Second Street and prepared to turn right. The traffic light changed from yellow to red, and she came to a sudden halt, testing the limits of her 2010 minivan. Come on. Turn to green. She wheezed under her breath. The dashboard clock read 3:15 a.m. Amelia considered running the light, but a group of rowdy men, liquored up, stumbled on the road, pushing and shoving one another. Following their movements with her eyes, her mind caught her by surprise as it replayed Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” The city that never sleeps was a far cry from its glory days. Overcrowded, noisy, and dirty, she bet Sinatra would sing a different tune if alive. A honk blared behind her. She stepped on the gas, and the minivan’s engine roared. Did the light change to green? She hoped. Going through the motions of daily life, Amelia parked the minivan in the underground garage, a preferred parking spot of the United Nations employees. She squeezed the car between a Mercedes and a BMW, a rarity, because the foreign dignitaries were chauffeured in unmarked cars, stashed in parking lots with security guards around the clock. She checked her watch. Pushing 3:30. I’m late. And of all days, today she couldn’t afford that. Armed with her press credentials, laptop bag, and umbrella, Amelia locked the car and sped up toward the employee entrance.
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The lot felt cold and windy. Even with cars packed in rows, not a soul in sight. Amelia squeezed her bag as if bracing herself as to what laid ahead. She reached the entrance and stepped in, the air chilled from the powerful AC. She shivered. Four years working at the UN and she wasn’t fully acclimated to the morgue-like temperatures of the building. Mike, the security guy at the desk, lifted his head to find out who was walking in. Recognizing the familiar face, he took off his reading glasses and tossed aside the morning edition of The New York Times. “Hi Mike.” Amelia rummaged through her bag, searching. “Miss Sinclair. Good to see you. Is it still raining out?” “It stopped. Thank God.” Amelia was losing the battle with her bag. “I had it. I swear I had my badge. Mike, I’m going crazy.” Mike tilted his head to one side, gave a crooked smile, and pointed to her pocket. “I think you better check your left pocket.” Amelia returned a doubtful look as her left hand went for the pocket. Relieved, she retrieved her picture credentials. It read “CWG Chief Foreign Liaison.” Mike scanned it through the system and motioned her to move forward through the metal detector. “The building’s quiet today?” Amelia gathered her belongings from the belt after the machine was done scanning them, making sure she wasn’t bringing a gun inside. “Not a peep.” With that, their conversation reached its limit. She racked her brain to come up with something warm and friendly to say. She’d known Mike since her first day on the job, but had said no more than two words to him. Why do it today? She was elbow-deep in work: phone calls to make, B-rolls to cut—no time for small talk. His puppy-like eyes giddily waited for her to prolong the chit-chat. Bag across her shoulder, ready to leave, Amelia saw a photo of a teenager, no older than sixteen, proudly perched up on his beat-up desk. “Is that your boy?” she heard herself say.
The security guard’s face lit up, and his lips stretched in a wide smile. “Mike Junior. He’s a few years older than when we took this photo. Headed to SUNY, freshman in the spring.” Amelia nodded approvingly. “I better get going.” With that, she headed to the “fishbowl.” Being a reporter, representing one of the top four networks, meant nothing to the UN bigwigs. The journalists were pushed to the bottom floor, below the security guards and custodian locker rooms. The old steam room at the east corner of the building was fashioned in the 70s as the media quarters. The UN’s attempt to keep these pesky journo types away from the action, away from getting their scoop. In summer, the fishbowl was hot, unbearable. In winter, same. Bodies pressed tightly together, fighting for elbow room; the few lucky enough to have a permanent desk grew the envy of the rest. More time was spent discussing the seating arrangements than an ongoing crisis in a foreign country. Amelia hit the light switch. The ceiling fluorescent lights came on, drowning the fishbowl in harsh brightness. She squinted to adjust her sight. At her computer desk, she wiggled the mouse to wake up the computer screen. The best-case scenario, she’d see no urgent messages, but Murphy’s Law could tip the scales the other way. The computer came to life. The breaking news ticker scrolled at the top, showing that the rest of the world was relatively peaceful at the moment. Checking her email could wait a moment. First, coffee. In a corner, tucked away next to an exposed steam pipe, was the coffee station. More news tips and gossip happened here than in any other room in the UN. She discarded the coffee filter, changed the water, and pressed the ON button. Coffee started to drip, filling the canister, teasing Amelia’s soul. Her wanting eyes pulled away from the drip and zoomed in on the working TV monitors above. The voices of ABC, CBS, her own network, and NBC were in a shouting match for her attention. Each was reporting on the latest White House scandal, a story bound to dominate the news cycle, a story Amelia had no stake in. The coffeemaker beeped
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and Amelia hungrily poured the bitter mixture in a mug. After a long inhale, she found herself at her desk, fingers blazing on the keyboard. She recalled the employee email page when the desk phone blinked. “Amelia.” She picked up on the first ring. “Darling.” A female with a heavy British accent sounded off in the receiver. “Sybil? Finally back at work? You got tired of the sunshine in the Bahamas?” “Don’t be ridiculous. Give me a fruity drink with an umbrella, foreign men in speedos, and the beach—baby, I’m never coming back.” “But here you are—what happened?” “Vacation got cut short. Those bastards on the foreign desk can’t wipe their twats without me.” Sybil meant what she said. “You’re irreplaceable.” “I’m a workhorse. They’ll work me till I drop dead, right here at this desk.” Amelia made no point to argue. “That much is true.” “Child, take it from me. Get out of this hell, before it’s too late. No rainbows in this biz.” “You’re feeling grim.” Amelia minimized the email page and opened the CWG employee portal, looking for internal notes from Sybil, figuring out the purpose of the call, without having to ask. She found none. “Your boss, Harold, wants video of the rape story. The girl in India, gang-raped on the bus. We got our hands on cell phone footage. Not of the actual…” She didn’t finish. She didn’t have to. Amelia understood that if such video existed, it would be shared on social media, but completely unacceptable to broadcast over Western channels. “I’m queuing the coordinates. Satellite channel AB is open. Read me the numbers when you have them.” “Hold on. I got them—75.03.78.111.000.” Amelia inputted the numbers Sybil gave her in the system, and her monitor connected to the overseas foreign desk. It turned from black to
the test color pattern, then the footage was transmitted and recorded by Amelia’s equipment. While it played out, Sybil resumed the conversation. “You’re doing a story on the press conference?” “I’m planning on it. I doubt management cares about a delegation returning from Russia. Much ado about nothing.” The two laughed. “Yeah, much ado about nothing,” Sybil repeated. Amelia returned her attention to her email page. The video would take several more minutes to play over the satellites. She muted Sybil, who was silent at the moment. The internet connected and displayed her inbox. She briefly took her eyes off the computer and shifted them to the TV monitor; the system was still going on. From the corner of her eyes, she spotted the top email. It was different from the rest; she didn’t like the look of it. The subject line was in Arabic and translated to Amelia Sinclair. Hesitant, Amelia hovered over it with the cursor. Should she open it? “Kid, did you get the last transmission?” Sybil’s voice echoed, startling Amelia. She gasped, taking her hands off the computer, and wheeled her chair away from the desk. She collected herself, cutting the connection to the satellite and returning to the line. “Yep. Got it.” She ended the call without another word. Alarmed by the unopened email, Amelia stood and poked her surroundings with probing eyes. Her breath slowed down, and she put a lid on her jilted nerves. She went ahead and pressed on the subject line. A link in the body paragraph prompted her to take further actions. She clicked again and a new window booted. A grainy, shaky video began to play in a loop. She squinted. A concerned gut feeling intensified in the pit of her stomach as she watched the images replay. By the fourth play, familiar faces flashed in front of her. Amelia’s face grew pale, long. Her biggest nightmare was unfolding in thirty seconds of footage. Separated by thousands of miles,
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her hands were tied behind her back. Amelia shook like a tree branch in January. Four journalists—Bo Breeks, Tom Seed, Dustin Mark, and Joseph Alexander, whom she knew personally—were pushed, shoved, and roughed up by masked assailants. She pressed on the stop button countless times, but it was of no use. The system didn’t respond. It kept playing. Amelia buried her head in her hands, eyes locked to the ground, and repeated, “No one knew they were in Syria. No one knew.” Evidently, by the video, someone had found out and was preparing to expose their secret.
anic washed over her. Eyes on the screen, Amelia picked up the phone and dialed a number. Then waited. “The number you’re trying to reach has been disconnected,” a female voice announced in both Farsi and English. She slammed the phone. Her source in Damascus couldn’t be reached. Without his help, she didn’t have a way to verify the authenticity of the vid. Amelia exited out of the web portal. She probed the AP Breaking News tracker for a sign that the damaging material was leaked to the media. Encouraged by the lack of evidence to support that, Amelia nervously tapped her fingers on the desk as she considered her next move. The face of Bo, her friend and mentor, flashed in front of her eyes. Seeing him helpless and defenseless in the images unnerved her to the core. The lives of three others and Bo hung on by a thread. Contingencies were put in place to safeguard the journalists, if the plan failed. For starters, her source in Damascus should have made contact with the team when they landed. She glanced at the clock to verify her timeline—eighteen hours had passed since their commercial flight landed.
The source was to meet them at the airport, brief them on the situation on the ground, then send a message to Amelia if danger was lurking. Did the meeting happen? No message meant the plan was a go. Without being able to tell the time of the day, or where the four were ambushed, Amelia was stuck and could only go on those thirty seconds of low-quality video. Exasperated, Amelia walked over to the flat screens and flipped through the channels, searching for a story coming from Syria. She could think of a million ways the lives of the four could play out—kidnapped, tortured, held for ransom. The one option Amelia didn’t dare to think was they could be dead by now. ABC showed an ongoing police car chase in Mississippi, CBS replayed the newscast from the night before, and CWG opened the early morning show with a Miss Universe interview. Syria was not on their radar. Four Western journalists missing was not on their radar either. She hated to admit it, but by the look of it, the video was meant for her eyes only. With that revelation, Amelia returned to her desk, and her body dropped in the chair. She reached for the phone a second time. Another man, however, picked up.
voice came over the line, sounding exhausted. “Yep?” The man sounded off. “Harold, it’s Amelia. We’ve got a situation.” A brief silence followed. “I’m listening.” “It’s the four. Someone knows about them. They’ve been ambushed.” She added, “I think.” Speaking rapidly, the voice gave instruction. “Amelia, here’s what I want you to do. Get off the phone and meet me at CWG. How fast can you get here?”
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“Twenty minutes, tops.” She heard static on the line, muffled sounds. “That should work. Make sure you don’t talk to anyone else. Okay?” He fired off, “It’s imperative that you don’t say a word before we’ve got the chance to meet. Okay?” Amelia was listening, but her thoughts ran wild. “You with me?” “I…they…how could this happen?” He grunted in the receiver. “What difference does it make? Get to CWG.” The line went dead. Paralyzed by fear, Amelia stared at the phone. The conversation with her executive producer sunk in. She told herself to hurry, but her hand on the mouse hit play once again. It started back on. Same pixelated quality, no sound, hard to distinguish shapes and faces. Amelia pressed pause before the image faded to black, slowly dragged it back a frame, then another frame. Her face grimaced, and her burrow hiked at the image frozen on the screen. She spotted a window. Okay. Using a bit of deduction, that meant the four were jumped inside. Maybe in their hotel room? The tidbit opened the door to more questions. Why ambush a group of Western journalists in a hotel? Amelia reserved their rooms, personally, at the Hilton International Hotel. Her laptop bag lay on the floor. She picked it up and pulled out a planner and scanned through the pages. Between paid bills, bills to pay, and doctor appointments, she found what she was looking for—a telephone number, beginning with +96311, Damascus’s area code. She went ahead and dialed Hilton International, rehearsing what to say to the receptionist. Her lips quivered at the prerecorded message: “The number you’re trying to reach is no longer in service.” She hung up before the message finished playing in English. Damascus was under a siege. For months, a steady stream of reports painted a picture to the rest of the world of a country in deep civil conflict. A political power threatened by a sect using religion as a false pretext to attack, kill, and destroy. The Syrian president was not an ally to the US but
not a foe either. Amelia couldn’t find the rationale on why he would give the orders to attack the journalists. There must be another explanation. Keeping the still image on the screen, Amelia called up a web browser and navigated to a page in Farsi. Underground bloggers, armed with cell phones and weak internet connection, were filing witness accounts of military movements on the ground in Syria as a warning to their countrymen. She should have checked their latest updates first, and not relied on the Western media. The blog on the top of the page was uploaded at 01:23 a.m. local time—a series of Instagram videos of refugees lugging kids, bags, and food provisions, crossing the border between Syria and Turkey, searching for a safe haven, a shield from the gunfights and violence. She scrolled through the photos of hallow faces, stained in muck, vacant eyes, and terrified expressions. Mothers dragging children twisted in sobs, fathers bent under the weight of sacks with belongings packed in the heat of fleeing a war zone. Her heart cracked for them. Yesterday, they were living a life in a country they’d known since birth; today, that home feeling was ripped from underneath them. Tomorrow, they’d be nomads without a land to call their own. Her gaze drifted away from the post and to the framed photos on her desk. She held onto her daughter, barely two years old in the picture, with the same intensity as these women. Her daughter, Ava, was born out of wedlock, the fruit of passion and lust, an adventure short-lived in a period of Amelia’s life plagued by uncertainties. Before Ava came along, Amelia didn’t consider having children. Her work and career were her life’s purpose. But children, they change everything. Guilt beamed on her face from feeling relieved that she could go home at the end of the day. Ava had a mother. But the whereabouts of the four—they were sons, brothers, husbands, friends—were a mystery, like that video. Since 2009, after the murders of two high-profile American journalists in Iraq, the four networks came to a conclusion that it was too risky to send in their own. Footage of the frontlines was badly needed, so they resorted to hire freelancers to go in the war zones, chasing the sto-
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ries and a payoff. Amelia, Frost, and the rest couldn’t trust a hired hand with this project. A lot rode on it. Precisely why they opted to keep it under a tight lid. CWG. Amelia gasped. The upper management had to be notified of the missing four. The shit storm was about to snowball, with catastrophic consequences. She peeled herself off the chair. She better get on with it and not make Frost wait. Amelia forced a shut-off of the computer system and picked up her laptop bag, but left the umbrella behind. On her way out, she paused and looked at the empty desks on either side of hers. On the left, Jack Sullivan filed reports for NPR; on her right was Ivan, reporting for the Guardian. She could write a note to either. Then Frost’s voice sounded in her ears: speak to no one. The note, the explanation, would have to wait. Amelia headed for the door and cut the lights off. The fishbowl returned to darkness. Outside the United Nations, under the heavy flags that adorned the main entrance, Amelia checked the time on her smartphone—4:15. CWG was twenty blocks away from East Forty-Second. Even with light traffic, if she drove, a car accident or a road closure could delay her. The subway was her best and safest option, Amelia concluded. At Grand Central, she bought a one-way ticket and hopped on train seven. The car was halfway full with early-bird commuters. A man in rags had stretched out across several seats, sleeping, undisturbed by the rest of the passengers. Amelia picked a seat on the other side of the car and sat across from a frail woman with headphones and a Walkman in her lap. Amelia did a double take at the Walkman, surprised to see the working CD player. The old lady studied Amelia with brown beady eyes, refusing to break eye contact. The train doors closed. The woman stubbornly stared at Amelia, who settled in to take the longest subway ride of her life. By Fifty-First, the old shrew had dozed off, leaving Amelia alone to sort through her thoughts and put them in order. The train moved again. Amelia took her cell phone from her coat jacket and let it rest in her lap. She debated whether to watch the video
again, to keep it fresh in her memory, though she doubted she’d ever be able to forget it. In the midst of indecision, her fingers were a step ahead of her. She swiped the screen and went straight to the email app. At the top of her inbox was the email; no other new messages. Against her better judgment, Amelia pressed on the link. The vid began to play. By the shakiness of it, Amelia believed it was recorded with a handheld cell phone. A light shined in Tom Seed’s face for a mere second, before his captors pushed the camera away. The light was brighter, more yellow and orange than natural light. Maybe a flashlight, or something similar; it came from an object and not the sun. She calculated the time difference. Syria was seven hours ahead. Amelia knew that their Lufthansa commercial flight arrived without delays. She’d verified that the night before she left work, expecting not to hear from the team for twenty-four to forty-eight hours, depending on the situation on the ground. Following that train of thought, the team put boots on the ground in Damascus a little after 6:30 p.m., give or take forty minutes to go through customs. Her subway ride made a stop, breaking her concentration. She turned to the window to see what stop she was on. 66th, a sign read. Her stop. Damn it. Amelia hissed. “Hold it! Hold the door, please,” she yelled at a group of passengers, who ignored her. As the doors began to close, she threw her arm in between, triggering the automatic motion detector. The doors slowly returned to their original position, allowing Amelia to get off. As she rushed out of the underground station, the timeline circled back in her mind. The kidnappers could have snatched the four at any point after 6:30. The window of opportunity was too wide, and Amelia lacked leads to bridge the gap. There was one more possibility that Amelia thought about, a possibility that was out there. The video showed the four taken against their wills. The video didn’t show whether the kidnappers recognized their targets. Were the four at the wrong place, at the wrong time? Was it mistaken
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identity? Her gut feeling told her there was more to the video than met the eye.
he four unmarked Ford Explorers, with dark windows, zipped through the treacherous traffic of Washington, DC, leaving behind flustered commuters blaring their horns. In the backseat of the second Ford, Secretary of State Conrad Burks chased away a headache. He massaged the temples of his head, overworked by the demands of the job and the young administration of President Delay. A hundred days in, the White House spent its time putting fires on two fronts—domestic and international. His hands relaxed to the side of his body when the convoy came to an abrupt stop on C Street. He threw on his suit jacket, then waited. Behind the tinted windows, he saw his Secret Service detail jump out on to the street, a formation of six agents. Two spread out to have a better view of the incoming traffic, and one stayed to the front of the second Ford; the rest split to clear the entrance to the Truman Building. When they determined the coast was secured, an agent gave a verbal command: “Go ahead.” Burks stepped on the wet pavement and surveyed his surroundings. The frequent trips abroad kept him away for prolonged periods. His body ached to stretch his legs. He lifted his head. Thick, thunderous clouds blocked the sunlight, predicting an imminent rainstorm. He was a man of impressive stature: tall, slender, muscular. His presence commanded respect. Gone away to an international summit for the better part of last week, it felt good to be back. When he returned his eyes to the building,
an agent stretched out a hand and handed Burks a briefcase. The politician nodded as a thank-you and headed for the entrance, marked Employees Only. He’d brought news with him, certain to cause waves in Delay’s White House. The international community was clear: they were watching, waiting for America to pull the trigger on an execution plan for Syria. Blood was spilled, innocent lives lost in a senseless conflict. Refugees were scaling the European borders, demanding safe passage. World leaders looked to POTUS to lead the pack. With the briefcase in hand, Burks rode the elevator, remembering where he’d stashed the aspirin. On the seventh floor, Missy Hobbs, his executive assistant, welcomed him back with a beaming face. “Good morning, sir. Welcome back.” The redhead flashed white teeth. “Thank you. It’s good to be back.” Expecting an avalanche of messages, he inquired, “Urgent messages? White House first priority; the rest will wait.” Hobbs opened her mouth to speak. The chirp of Burks’s phone cut her short. “Hang on.” He reached for the phone attached to his belt. Burks glanced at it, then realized he was checking the wrong phone. The other phone was in his inner coat pocket. While he retrieved it, Hobbs said, “The White House called as you were pulling up.” Eyes locked on the screen, lower jaw tensed, Burks said, “I’m wanted in the Situation Room.” “I’ll call down to your detail and have the car turn around.” Hobbs left his side while Burks walked in his office to steal a moment of privacy and find the aspirin. The massive oak desk was covered in paperwork, files, and random notes. Despite Hobbs’s pleas to allow her to tidy up the space, Burks dismissed that idea. “Missy, I exist in the uncertainty between chaos and order,” he would proclaim, victorious, and stubbornly add more chaos to the pile of paper.
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The leather chair absorbed the weight of his body and squeaked when Burks swirled from side to side, searching the drawers for headache pills. Defeated, he yelled for Hobbs to come in. “Missy, I can’t find anything in this damn mess.” “That seems unlikely.” Burks scowled. “You got something for a headache? My head is throbbing and is driving me nuts.” Hobbs maneuvered behind his desk, picked up a stack of papers, and pointed to the aspirin bottle. “The car’s waiting. The CIA DCI called and asked to speak with you.” “Post called? What does he want?” Burks asked, more to himself than Hobbs. He popped two baby aspirins and chewed them. The White House-encrypted cell phone beeped, a reminder that he was summoned to the Sit Room. With a last grunt, Burks cocked his head back and stood. “I’m out of here, Missy. Hold the fort while I’m gone.” Hobbs followed behind, notepad and pen in hand. “If DCI Post calls, what should I tell him?” The mention of Post left a bitter taste in Burks’s mouth, but his face bore no expression. “Yeah, right, Eugene. Call the CIA and get a hold of him. Transfer the call to the Ford.” The cell buzzed again. Burks hit the mute button without looking at the message. “Hold the nonessential calls. I’ve got a feeling it’s going to be a long day at the White House. Call them, too, and tell them I’m on my way, before they send the generals to escort me personally.” He flashed a smile, then he left the same way he came in.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Jolene Grace grew up in Eastern Europe and has witnessed firsthand theregionâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s geopolitical makeover as well as the economical struggles of poverty faced by all, which is a prevalent theme in her writing. She holds a Bachelorâ&#x20AC;&#x2122;s Degree in Journalism and Broadcasting, which fueled her interest in politics. Jolene interned for CBS Evening News, working on the foreign desk at night time and has covered many wars, including the American/Iraq War. A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, Jolene makes her home in Massachusetts with her husband and children, where she writes full-time. Going Dark is her debut novel in her Gabriel Jets spy series.