Red Star Falling

A Luke Daniels Adventure

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Synopsis
 

Wrapping up his latest assignment for the Magellan Billet, Luke Daniels receives a surprise visit from the head of a former-CIA operation named Sommerhaus — a failed attempt to assemble an espionage network within the Ukraine on the eve of the Russian invasion. Sommerhaus ranks high on Luke’s list of painful regrets for it was during this mission that his friend, CIA case officer John Vince, was captured by Russian operatives and supposedly executed. But Luke is provided some shocking news. Vince is alive, in failing health, locked behind the walls of Russia’s brutal Solovetsky Island prison, and has a critical message he’ll give to no one but Luke. Needing no further convincing Luke vows to bring Vince home.

However, just as he manages to extract his friend from prison Vince tragically dies and his final words are rambling and incoherent. Just bits and pieces. But enough to plunge Luke into a hunt for something lost since the 16th century. The legendary library of the first Tsar of All Russia, Ivan the Terrible.

Within that priceless collection of rare manuscripts is the key to unraveling a modern-day cipher and stopping a secret Soviet satellite program that still exists. But Luke is not the only one on the trail. Others, both inside and out of Russia, want the library for a totally different reason — to re-start the Red Star program and finally unleash its destructive potential. Luke’s mission is clear. Find the lost library, solve the puzzle, and prevent Red Star falling.

 


Praise
 

"Red Star Falling is so full of intrigue and suspense that it instantly becomes another Steve Berry classic. Berry and Blackwood are a formidable pair, producing a timely, politically driven thriller filled with high-octane suspense from start to finish.”
— bookreprter.com

"An action-packed thriller, with betrayals and twists and turns. Fans of the first novel and the Cotton Malone books will be happy with this one.”
— redcarpetcrash.com

"For a second book in a trilogy, this one was still top notch. Usually book two in a trilogy can have some serious "filler" vibes, but Berry and Blackwood didn't slow down on the gas for this one, and it kept the same punch. Looking forward to the third, and hoping that's not all we get of Luke.”
— slapdashandsundry.blogspot.com

“A fast paced and engaging read.”
— caseywheeler2.wordpress.com


Excerpt
 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Lisbon, Portugal
Monday – May 19 – 4:00 A.M.

Luke Daniels knew there was a saying among mountaineers that reaching the summit was but the halfway point. Hard as hell to do. No question. But once you were at the top the job wasn’t over. Not until you made it back down to basecamp, safe and sound. Then, and only then, were you finished. And while this, his latest assignment for the Magellan Billet, a simple escort job across the Spanish border, was no mountain climb, the metaphor definitely applied. He’d successfully completed his mission yesterday and was now headed home.

The problem?

In staggered formation the two dark sedans behind him had matched his last four turns on his way to the airport. They’d also kept their distance, like two fighter pilots flying on his wings.

And making no real secret of the fact.

Dawn was still two hours away, so Monday morning rush hour hadn’t yet begun. The four-laned, median highway was largely deserted, though having never been to Lisbon before he had zero idea what busy meant here. All he knew was what he could see. Those two black sedans. And whoever was inside them. Behind him. A mile or so ahead he spotted the twinkling of the airport runway lights and navigation beacons.

Base camp. Almost there.

His options were to either make a run for the airport or find out more about his inquisitive friends. He decided on the latter. Why? First, the soldier in him didn’t like being stalked. Army Rangers were the ones who did that, not the other way around. So, being a former-Ranger, it was the principle of the thing. Second, he had no idea what these people wanted. Were their intentions hostile? Were they armed? No way to know. But he couldn’t risk gunplay at an airport crowded with innocent bystanders. The downside though was that he was unarmed. If it came to a gunfight he’d be little better than a bystander himself. To top it off he was sleep-deprived, grumpy, and wasn’t looking forward to a seven-hour flight, in coach, across the Atlantic back home to D.C. You would think the United States government could spring for business class for its intelligence officers.

But that wasn’t the case.

He took a moment to glance at his phone’s map then speed-dialed the Magellan Billet’s operations desk. The line clicked open and he said, “I have followers, in two cars, parties and intentions unknown.”

Then he rattled off the MGRS coordinates.

The Billet often coordinated with U.S. military assets, so it used the Military Grid Reference System, which was accurate down to three feet. He knew it well. Back in Afghanistan, during his Ranger days, knowing your exact location meant the difference between calling in a Hail Mary artillery barrage or a helicopter evac for a gravely wounded comrade.

“Are you requesting support?” the voice asked.

“No. But put me on the clock. Sixty minutes. After that, come looking.”

He ended the call and glanced in the rearview mirror. The cars were still there, now only a hundred yards back, staggered like a pair of hungry sharks.

You wanna play? Okay. Let’s play.

He stomped the gas pedal, gaining twenty miles per hour. Then, at the last moment, he swung hard right onto the upcoming exit and accelerated again, taking the curving off ramp as fast as he dared. Behind him the two sedans were skidding to a stop.

He smiled.

His pursuers had been caught napping and overshot.

The downside?

Now they knew their quarry was onto them. Almost certainly their tactics would change, perhaps becoming more aggressive. At the bottom of the ramp he tapped his breaks and glanced left to make sure he wasn’t going to t-bone an unsuspecting motorist.

The way was clear.

He blasted through the stop sign, spun the wheel hard and accelerated into a fish-tail turn. The road curved again and almost immediately he found himself on the outskirts of a bairro. The typical Portuguese neighborhood loomed quiet this early in the morning. Out his window to the right was a half-mile wide area of scrub land bisected by a canal marked by a serpentine line of tall and lush trees. Beyond that was the frontage road of another bairro, its contours lit by streetlights. He cast a glance in the rearview mirror. No sign of his pursuers. He hadn’t lost them, of course, but he’d forced them into catch up mode. Which might make them a little desperate.

Hopefully a bit more careless too.

Ahead he saw a turn onto a dirt tract. He slowed slightly and swung onto it. Now he just needed the right spot. The longer this chase went on, the worse for him. He had to assume his pursuers could call-in backup, and he didn’t want to get pincered in a high-speed car chase. His best chance was to make them play his game, hunter-killer, on foot, on the ground, by his rules.

The road swung right, parallel to the canal.

He skidded to a slow roll on the shoulder, only stopping when the tall grass was slapping the car’s under carriage. He left the engine running and the headlights on and climbed out into the cool morning. He popped the trunk and leaned in, found a tire iron, then butt-scooted under the car until he was lost in the grass. He’d pulled this trick before, most recently in Lichtenstein outside an abandoned Wehrmacht airbase.

Worked then. Why not now?

Thirty seconds later a pair of headlights appeared on the road, followed by a second set. Tires crunched on the dirt and gravel. The lead car slowed then passed his rental and came to a stop a few feet off the front bumper. The trail car took up position at the rear boxing him in. Smart move, all things considered, but the wrong one.

Doors opened.

“Check that car. Careful,” a male voice said with authority.

Feet swished through the grass on either side of him.

“Clear,” a woman called out. “Car’s empty.”

“Trunk’s empty,” another voice said. “Must have taken his bags.”

“He’s in the trees,” the first voice said. “That’s where he wants us. Luke Daniels, come out. We need to talk.”

The shouted voice was familiar, but he couldn’t quite place it. Another pair of feet approached the trunk within arm’s reach.

“The tire iron’s missing, boss.”

“Let’s go get him,” the female said.

The feet beside the trunk stepped away, past him.

He quietly wriggled out from under the car, rose to his knees, then smashed the tire iron into the man’s ankle. The guy howled and buckled sideways then hit the ground. The gun thumped into the dirt. He pressed the tire iron’s wedge point into the man’s larynx and whispered, “Not a sound.” He grabbed the gun and motioned. “On your feet.”

“I . . . can’t. I think you broke . . . my ankle.”

He bodily lifted the man to his feet. The guy hobbled, listing sideways, but was stable enough for Luke’s purposes. He jammed the gun into the man’s ear. “Weapons on the ground, or I’m going to ruin this guy’s day.”

A figure appeared and faced him, silhouetted by the twin beams of his rental’s headlights. “I suppose I should have seen this coming. Classic Luke Daniels. You didn’t have to hurt the guy.”

Now he recognized the voice.

Sean Fernando.

A hard name to forget for several reasons, not the least of which was that it had always reminded him of a villain from a Mexican telenovela. Or an ABBA song. But this man was a trained intelligence operative.

CIA.

“You should know there are only rubber bullets in that gun.”

“At point blank range it’ll still get the job done.”

“Are you really going to shoot him, Luke?”

“Depends on whether I buy your explanation for why you’re following me.”

“We’re sure as hell not here to hurt you. Didn’t I announce our presence clear enough?”

“A little too clear.”

“I just wanted to test you a bit, see if you’re still sharp.”

“Did I pass?”

“With flying colors. Let him go. I’m just here to talk.”

Fernando was from the CIA’s Directorate of Operations, a/k/a the Clandestine Service, a/k/a the agency’s field spooks. They worked under the radar. In the shadows. If they’d wanted him dead he would have never seen them coming. Plus, Hollywood movie portrayals aside, the CIA was relatively circumspect when it came to murder. Fernando was here for a specific reason and, he had to admit, he was curious. So he let his captive go, then helped him sit on the bumper.

“You broke my ankle, Daniels.”

“You’ll be fine.”

He racked the pistol’s slide, ejecting a rubber bullet. He caught it in mid-air, popped the magazine, then pocketed both. He handed the weapon back to the man on the bumper.

“What’s this about, Sean?” he asked. “What’s so important that you might make me miss my flight? I’m tired and want to go home.

Fernando stared him down.

“John Vince.”

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

Luke followed Fernando’s team back through the bairro to an all-night diner on the outskirts of the airport. The mention of John Vince was enough to make him forget his flight, and Fernando’s offer to buy him coffee seemed more than enough to marginally improve his mood. While the other people from the cars assumed protective positions near the diner’s entrance he and Fernando settled into a booth. Past the windows he spotted the twinkling of the runway lights. A jet lifted off, banked, and disappeared from view, silhouetted from the east by the rising sun.

“Not to worry,” Sean said. “If you’re not interested in what I have to say, I’ll get you booked on the next flight home.”

“Efficient as ever,” he said, not impressed.

Fernando was an interesting fella. His mother was Sri Lanken, his father a lapsed Catholic Pakistani who’d left the church after meeting Sean’s mother on a trip to India. It had been love at first sight so they’d eloped a week after and moved to the U.S. before their respective parents could either protest or find them. Sean had wavy, thick black hair, cinnamon skin and a pair of intense dark eyes. Near his hairline was a scar that looked suspiciously like a bullet graze, an oddity Luke had asked about in the past. The answers had ranged from drunk barber to lawn mower accident. Each reply had been accompanied by a smile, but the glint in those eyes told Luke it was all a bad memory.

Coffee arrived and Sean said, “We got word three days ago—”

He held up his index finger, silencing Fernando, and enjoyed a sip.

Then another one.

“Better?” Sean asked.

“It’s a start. Go ahead.”

“We got word three days ago that Vince has resurfaced.”

He had about a thousand questions, so he took a moment to prioritize the most important ones. “You said word. What does that mean?”

“A source.”

“I see you’re being the ever, true-blue CIA officer, reluctant to discuss sources or methods. Stop dancing. What source?”

“I was told it’s a stringer agent who definitely has firsthand information.”

“Level of confidence?”

“In the stringer? Or the source?”

“Both.”

“The source I trust implicitly. The stringer? That’s where you come in.”

“Where’s the source?” he asked.

“Hungary. Kisvárda.”

Now he understood. “That’s no coincidence.”

“You think?” Sean asked.

Kisvárda sat inside Hungary fifteen miles from the Ukrainian border. It had been his and John Vince’s base of operations for Operation Sommerhaus, something he would never forget. In fact those thoughts had never been far from his mind ever since the operation had fallen apart two years ago.

Its premise had been straightforward, but its execution perilous.

Vince, a veteran of the CIA’s Directorate of Operations and an expert agent-recruiter, had been tasked with assembling a network of local spies inside Ukraine. Russian president Konstantin Franko’s dictatorial saber-rattling had escalated into an armed incursion into Ukraine’s Luhansk Oblast. So the Director of National Intelligence had ordered the CIA to begin preparing information networks into Ukraine through which the United States could funnel both advisors and intelligence. Corralling local expertise was the natural place to start. Technical intelligence, like satellite imagery and electronic eavesdropping, were superb assets but they were no substitute for live eyes and ears on the ground.

Luke, on loan from the Magellan Billet, the Department of Justice’s covert operations branch, had served as Vince’s security overwatch, shepherding agents and material back-and-forth across Ukraine’s border with Hungary. He was needed since there’d been an influx of Russian SVR operatives determined to foil exactly what the CIA had planned. So tight was Sommerhaus’s security that neither the Ukrainian, nor Hungarian governments had been informed of the operation, leaving Luke and Vince to stand alone between two competing intelligence services. Russian and Ukrainian. Three, if you included Hungary, whose government was tipping toward hardcore right wing politics and ever-increasing support of Franko’s Russian ambitions.

While Vince was accustomed to living in the shadowy world of plausible deniability, for Luke there’d been an anxiety-ridden learning curve. In that pressurized environment he and Vince had become friends, which made what happened five months into Sommerhaus all the more painful.

Everything collapsed.

Beginning with agents disappearing and dying and culminating with John Vince vanishing one frigid night outside Terpoli. It had been reasonably assumed he’d been kidnapped by the SVR and either murdered or spirited back to Russia for interrogation and imprisonment. While the idea of both options haunted Luke, the thought of his friend living in the hell of a Russian black site had frequently kept him up at night.

Years ago he’d toured Lubyanka, the infamous KGB prison in Moscow turned museum and sightseeing stop. He’d walked the dimly lit corridors and stood in the cramped, cold cells, their walls covered in the same scabrous, mint green paint its inmates had stared at while awaiting execution or torture. Few that went into Lubyanka left, and those who did were never the same person. And though he’d been only an hour inside he’d also left changed. Stepping back out into the sunlight that day had felt like a rebirth of sorts. It hadn’t been the claustrophobia or the smells or sounds, or even the brutal history of the place. It had been the hopeless feeling of inescapable doom. While he doubted the political prisons in modern Russia looked anything like Lubyanka, or any of the thousands of gulags that existed at the height of the Cold War, he was sure that under Konstantin Franko imprisonment was no less grim. On those sleepless nights he’d found himself mulling the same questions. Was John still alive? If so, what were they doing to him? What kind of walls was he staring at?

“Is Bloodhound involved?” he asked.

Sean’s yes came in the form of a slight cocking of the head.

Pavel Reschshikovets, codenamed Bloodhound, known to them as Pasha, had been one of Vince’s first recruits, a stringer agent whose restaurant supply business had clients throughout Ukraine. The perfect false front. He and Vince had lived in Pasha’s house, worked out of his warehouse, and had been treated like family.

“Bloodhound spoke with the stringer?” he asked.

“I assume so. His message came to us via a backchannel. It said simply, Squire may be up. Worth a look.”

Squire was Vince’s operational name. Luke had been Gallop.

“Sounds fishy,” he said, taking another sip of coffee. “Pasha might be compromised. It could be the SVR tickling the wire to see if we’ve tried to re-establish Sommerhaus, crossing their T’s, dotting the I’s.”

“We agree,” Sean said. “But we’ve got two options. Ignore it or investigate.”

“We’ve got zero options. If there’s a chance Vince is alive, we go in. In fact, I’m going with or without your support.”

“Like you say, it could be a trap to get another one of ours.”

“I’ll take that chance. Do I have your support?”

“Me, personally? Absolutely. The agency? Afraid not. Before now we had no idea what happened to John. But if you confirm the source is good, and he could be alive, then this all goes to the State Department.”

He knew what that meant. Years of talking. Negotiations. Until a diplomatic deal could be made to trade John for something or someone else. All part of the intelligence game. Every case officer knew the score. Pawns on a chessboard, there to protect the king and queen, nothing more.

“Officially,” Sean said. “I’m asking you to evaluate the source and report back. That’s all.”

But he caught the glint in Fernando’s eyes.

Though he knew only a little about Sean’s background, or even his current position at Langley, he’d seen how the man had reacted to losing John Vince. They’d exhausted a week’s debriefing at a safehouse following Luke’s narrow escape. Sean had been genuinely heartbroken and they’d spent days brainstorming ways to find out what happened. No faking that kind of anguish. In the end Luke suspected the higher-ups at Langley had quashed Sean’s demands to go back into Ukraine for a look.

He knew what had to be said. “Officially, that’s exactly what I’ll do.” He finished his coffee. “I’ll make the assessment.”

But he left the rest unsaid.

Then determine if it’s worth moving forward. If so, I’m going to get John out.

The world of espionage was brutally pragmatic. If push came to shove and the choices were to sacrifice Luke to Vince’s fate, or provoke an already-volatile Konstantin Franko, Langley would choose the former. Going into another country and committing open acts of aggression, for whatever reason, was an act of war. But as long as there was a chance to get John out, he was going to take it.

He owed him. Big time.

“That whole area is now a boiling pot,” Sean said. “Ukraine is Konstantin Franko’s trial balloon. Most western intelligence agencies believe that Franko has ambitions for reclaiming a huge chunk of the former-Soviet Union, which is now all sovereign neighboring territory. That means war since NATO will never accept any of that, and rightly so. Franko is testing NATO’s resolve to see who blinks first.”

He got it. Anything could set the region off.

He refilled his mug from the carafe. One more thing. “Since I don’t actually work for the CIA, I assume you’ve already talked to Stephanie Nell?”

His boss at the Magellan Billet.

Sean smiled. “She’s waiting for your call.”