Before the Storm

Chris Kuzneski

Before the Storm

A Note About

THE HUNTERS: ORIGINS

The Hunters series opens in the middle of a daring heist as four strangers attempt to steal an important relic from Russian mobsters. Jack Cobb, Sarah Ellis, Josh McNutt, and Hector Garcia prove their worth by breaking into a heavily guarded compound in Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach while being attacked by an army of goons and chased by the FBI. Based on the team’s success, Jean-Marc Papineau hires them to find something far more valuable than a single artifact: a treasure train filled with Romanian gold.

If you’ve read THE HUNTERS, THE FORBIDDEN TOMB, and THE PRISONER’S GOLD, you know what happens next. But have you ever wondered what the team members were doing before the first heist? If so, I’ve got some great news for you. Over the course of several short novellas, THE HUNTERS: ORIGINS will delve into the history of the major characters in the series while providing clues and insight into THE HUNTERS movie and future books.

The first story is called BEFORE THE STORM, and it focuses on the team leader of the Hunters. After his unexpected discharge from the U.S. Army, Jack Cobb finds it difficult to adjust to civilian life. Thankfully, two of his closest friends (Jonathon Payne and David Jones) come to his rescue in the oppressive heat of Florida. But their tales of adventure do more than cheer him up. They open Cobb’s eyes to an opportunity that will change his life forever.

Works by Chris Kuzneski

Payne & Jones Series

The Plantation

Sign of the Cross

Sword of God

The Lost Throne

The Prophecy

The Secret Crown

The Death Relic

The Einstein Pursuit

The Hunters Series

The Hunters

The Forbidden Tomb

The Prisoner’s Gold (*** Thriller Award Winner ***)

The Hunters: Origins

Before the Storm

Chapter 1

Tuesday, August 14 Clearwater Beach, Florida

(23 miles west of Tampa)

Jack Cobb wasn’t in the mood to talk to anyone.

Not the hostess, not the locals, and certainly not the shirtless tourists who whooped with glee as they drank their piña coladas while listening to a white guy with dreadlocks play a reggae version of Margaritaville.

Cobb rolled his eyes and gulped his beer.

Another fucking day in paradise.

Prior to his trip to Florida, he could tolerate Jimmy Buffett, but his beach songs were played so often — and so poorly — at the bars and restaurants around town, Cobb was tempted to pull his gun and shoot the wannabe Rastafarian before he could inflict more damage to the public’s eardrums. With the liberal gun laws in the Sunshine State, Cobb was ninety percent sure he could plead self-defense and get away with it.

The thought of violence made him smile.

It was the first time he had smiled that day.

With its stifling heat, Florida is miserable in August. While the winter months are heaven on earth, summer is closer to hell. According to a plastic thermometer behind the bar, the temperature was ninety-five — and so was the humidity. It was so hot even the seagulls were cranky. They shrieked obnoxiously as they searched for food on the wooden deck overlooking the wide white beach and the vast turquoise sea.

From his stool at the end of the bar, Cobb watched the birds fight for scraps. The imagery pissed him off because it made him think of his current ordeal. He had come to the Palm Pavilion, a popular beachfront hangout on Clearwater Beach, to take his mind off things, but the place was having the opposite effect.

Everyone around him was loose and having fun.

Meanwhile, he was coiled and ready to strike.

People sensed it, too.

The place was packed, but the stools next to him were empty.

His icy gray stare kept people away.

Thunder rumbled in the distance like gunfire in the Middle East. The locals were so used to the threat they paid it no mind. Along this part of the Gulf Coast, it rains almost every day in the summer, normally in the middle of the afternoon. The showers were often quick but powerful. With more thunderstorms than just about anywhere on the planet, this region proudly calls itself the lightning capital of the world.

Cobb glanced at his watch. It was 1:37 PM.

He guessed he had ninety minutes until it started to rain.

He raised his hand and ordered a pitcher of beer.

It was time to pick up his pace.

* * *

For a man like Cobb, this was rock bottom.

After graduating from West Point, he had joined the United States Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and thrived. Nicknamed the Night Stalkers, the 160th SOAR is a Special Operations force that provides helicopter aviation support for assaults, attacks, and reconnaissance. Its missions are usually conducted at night, at high speeds, at low altitudes, and on short notice.

Simply put, the Night Stalkers are badasses.

And Cobb had been their alpha dog for many years.

Whether on the base or in the field, people naturally looked up to Cobb. Not only the soldiers under his command, but also the officers above him. As if everyone sensed he would someday be in charge of the whole damn army. Some called it charisma; others called it leadership. Whatever it was, the quality was palpable with Cobb.

It didn’t hurt that his father — a Brigadier General in the U.S. Marines — was on the shortlist to be the next Secretary of Defense. Bloodlines mattered in the military, even if the two Cobbs didn’t get along. Recently their fracture had widened to a massive chasm when Jack was dishonorably discharged for killing a high-level terrorist who was supposed to be captured, tortured, and used as a political pawn.

At least that was the rumor.

Few people knew what actually had happened.

The details of Cobb’s court martial were so heavily redacted it would have been more efficient to dump a bucket of black paint on the transcript than to go in by hand and conceal the confidential information in the 512-page report. About the only words that weren’t crossed out were prepositions.

Despite the incident, Cobb had somehow avoided prison.

But that didn’t mean he hadn’t been punished by the Army.

The military was his life, and it had been taken from him.

And so had his reputation.

* * *

Cobb had come to Florida to visit MacDill Air Force Base.

Located four miles from downtown Tampa, MacDill serves as headquarters for U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Special Operations Command (SOCOM), Marine Forces Special Command (MARCENT), and several other units. In total, there are twenty-eight mission partners based at MacDill, which makes it the most critical military hub in the United States outside of the Pentagon.

Over the years, Cobb had spent a lot of time at MacDill and had hoped one of his contacts would throw him a lifeline — whether it was a job at a military gun range or a teaching position overseas. But word had spread quickly amongst the ranks that he was off limits. Simply put, anyone seen talking to and/or helping Cobb would be blacklisted by the military.

To active personnel, he was persona non grata.

Hell, they wouldn’t even let him on the base.

As cruel as it sounded, the military took its code of conduct quite seriously, and Cobb’s dishonorable discharge was such a stunning fall from grace that no one at MacDill was willing to risk his career for a man who had screwed up so badly that even his high-ranking father couldn’t save him.

It was the Army’s equivalent of the scarlet letter.

Even worse, private military companies like Academi (formerly known as Blackwater) and Aegis were forced to back away as well. Normally there would have been a bidding war for someone like Cobb, who could be dropped anywhere in the world to lead an entire platoon of mercenaries, but private contractors were so dependent on military money they couldn’t risk upsetting anyone at CENTCOM, particularly a Brigadier General who may become the Secretary of Defense.

After several days of rejection, Cobb realized he was screwed.

He had come to Florida for a second chance.

But was forced to settle for another beer.

Chapter 2

Cobb was halfway through his pitcher when his phone started to ring. He glanced at the caller ID and saw a name from his past.

He smiled for the second time that day.

Maybe he wasn’t screwed after all.

Cobb took a deep breath before answering. “Well, I’ll be damned. You must’ve read my mind. I was thinking about giving you a call.”

“Really?” the man said. “Why didn’t you?”

“I wasn’t sure your secretary would put me through.”

The caller laughed. “You have my cell number, not my work number. Besides, I’m not in the office. I’m on vacation.”

“Me, too,” said Cobb as he struggled to hear. He covered his left ear with his free hand, but the torturous wails of the white Bob Marley were ...

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