Face Off

Robert Stanek

Face Off

Also by Robert Stanek

Ruin Mist Chronicles

Dragons of the Hundred Worlds

Keeper Martin's Tale

Kingdom Alliance

Fields of Honor

Mark of the Dragon

Guardians of the Dragon Realms

Scott Evers Thrillers

The Pieces of the Puzzle

The Cards in the Deck

The Pawns on the Board

The Players in the Game

After the Machines

This Mortal Coil

The Secret of Us

Acknowledgments

I would like to thank my writing group, my editors, and my publishers for their many years of support. A writer can’t survive in this business without such wonderful support. I want to personally thank Jeannie Kim, Tom Green, Lisa Johnson, Tony Andover, Frank Martin, Ed & Holly Black, Patrick Gaiman, George Harrison, and Susan Collins for encouraging me and keeping me on track with the writing. Your insights and assistance have always been much appreciated. I also want to thank Will, Jasmine, and Sapphire for always being the first readers to devour my work and come back hungry for more.

World Time

Hawaii Time

Coordinated Universal Time -10:00

Mountain Time

Coordinated Universal Time -07:00

Brussels, Paris & Madrid

Coordinated Universal Time +01:00

Beirut, Cairo & Tripoli

Coordinated Universal Time +02:00

FACT:

The National Cybersecurity Initiative and the NCI Data Center exist, as do the code-named surveillance programs and the secret branches of the NSA and CIA.

All science, technology, literature and historical references are real, including Big Black, D-Wave and quantum computing.

Chapter 1

Mediterranean Sea

Morning, Wednesday, 20 June

Scott was worried as he thought about what might be about to happen. “Edie and I work security together,” he told the MAs. “Same VIP clearance.” The last part was a white lie, but what could it hurt?

“Badge,” Edie said, doing her best to point her head at the badge pinned to her shirt. The only problem was the badge; it wasn’t there.

“You’ll have to take my word for it,” Edie said, her eyes wide.

“Wheelchair,” Scott said to the nurse, “no arguments.” At her hesitation, he tried to step away on his own, made the first step but wouldn’t have made the second step if one of the MAs hadn’t come to his rescue. “Seems like he’s going to go one way or another,” the MA said.

Scott gave the nurse his best that’s exactly what I’m going to do look. “And I do need something. If not reds, something else. Adrenaline?”

The nurse held her ground. “You’re going to get me reprimanded, if not demoted and court marshalled too.”

“I’m going to get you a Navy Cross,” Scott said, surprised at how fast his thoughts were moving. To Edie, who was still cuffed, he said, “You gave me some before I woke up. How many?”

“I gave you two. They didn’t do anything.” She quirked her brows and added, softly, “So I was going to give you two more.”

All the color flushed from the nurse’s face. “Those are 60 milligram pills. Two and he’s not just running at highway speeds, he’s probably outside his mind. Four and he’s dead from a massive coronary. You got that little girl?”

Edie looked flustered. “I didn’t know.” To the MA at her side, she said, “Can you uncuff me?”

The MA looked to Scott, who nodded. “She’s harmless,” he said. “Completely harmless.”

Uncuffed, Edie ran to Scott, wrapped her arms around him. “You damned fool,” she said, whispering in his ear and kissing his cheek before stepping back.

A phone started ringing, but it wasn’t the one on the desk at the nurse’s station. Edie got down on her hands and knees, looking for the source, and came up with a satellite phone.

“Hello,” she said, answering. “Just a moment. He’s right here.” Turning to Scott, she said, her hand over the microphone, “Do you know a Ken Kweeny?”

“Ken Kawena,” Scott said, reaching for the phone and only realizing the mistake he was making by the look on Edie’s face. She switched the call to speaker so he could talk without having to hold the phone. “Ken, it’s Scott. Encrypted but unsecure.”

A pause. “Scott, you don’t know how good it is to hear your voice. I’ve been trying to reach you for hours. I told whoever I reached it was a matter of utmost urgency for you to call me back. Sounded like the girl I just spoke to. Has Dave Gilbert from NCI DC got ahold of you?”

Scott’s eyes shifted to Edie’s. “You talked to Ken earlier?”

“I don’t know what I did earlier,” Edie said. “Wasn’t exactly myself after what happened.”

“Sorry, it’s been intense around here,” Scott said into the speaker. “What’s NCI got to do with any of this?”

“I don’t know, not exactly, but you asked me to look into this and that’s as far as I got. Take down this number. Call it.”

“Pen?” Scott said to the nurse. He checked the clock on the phone. It was almost 5 A.M. One of the MAs gave Edie a pen and paper. “Ready.” Scott wrote down the number, not surprised Ken remembered to give him the international dialing sequence. “Got it.” A pause. “Ken, this as bad as it feels?”

“Worse. Call Dave.”

Scott watched as Edie hung up and dialed. Her fingers were long, slender, and they moved with purpose.

“Hello?” Edie said, surprise in her voice. “I’m trying to reach Dave Gilbert.” She put a hand over the phone. “A woman named Nancy Stevens answered, says she’ll get Dave.”

Here goes nothing.

“On speaker,” Scott said.

Edie switched the call to speaker and held the phone out so Scott could hear and talk. “Evers here,” he said.

“Scott Evers?” said a strong, male voice. “You don’t know how good it is to hear your voice or how long I’ve been trying to reach you.”

All the questions he should ask at this moment flashed through Scott’s mind. He chose the most troubling. “What’s NCI got to do with any of this?”

“Everything,” Dave said. There was a rustling sound on the line and then the clickety-clack of fingers on a keyboard. The computer pinged. “Am I on speaker? Are there others listening? Do you know where you are?”

Scott looked to Edie, the nurse, the MAs. Behind them, he saw hospital beds, separated from him only by thin curtains. “I’m here with my second in command, Edilene Marshall.”

A long pause. More fingers on the keyboard. Another ping. Then a high-pitched alert. “I see,” Dave said, his voice suddenly different. “I need you to go off speaker. Is that possible?”

“Give me a moment,” Scott said.

Chapter 2

Tyrrhenian Sea

Morning, Wednesday, 20 June

The director pressed the phone to his ear, his face as pale as if he’d seen a ghost. He hadn’t seen a ghost, but he was hearing from one. The wind was blowing his hair around as the Il Ferdinand and her fast displacement hull tore through the chop at 25 knots. With Corsica behind and soon Sardinia, it would be open waters until they passed the coast of Sicily.

The director was tired, and the dark circles under his eyes showed the fatigue setting in. He no longer felt like God’s just instrument or simply a man resolving life’s inevitable iniquities. Instead, he was a man who was about to break the basic tenets on which he’d built an empire that had thrived for over two decades.

Never take a job you do not intend to see through to the end.

Never pass judgment on those who hire you.

Never reveal your client’s identity.

Tenets that were the cornerstones of not only his business but his life. And yet he was about to break not one but all three.

“Yes, I’m certain,” his operative said in reply to his question about the target’s status. Any other time the trembling of her voice would have been a red flag, but now it only added the necessary measure of truth. She was as wounded and vulnerable as she’d told him she was.

“Alex—” the director started to say, but cut short.

“Afraid to say my name, father?” the operative said. “Guilty conscience after trying to kill me?”

Alexis wasn’t his real daughter, but he’d raised her up from the darkness that had swallowed her after she’d been discharged from the U.S. army, replacing an unquenchable hunger for poison delivered by a needle with a new hunger delivered by special messenger. A hunger for correcting wrongs and injustices.

“It was necessity, not personal.” Before speaking again, he looked at the phone’s display and the timer ticking off the seconds of the connection. Even with all ...

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