Chapter 1Briar Wood, Texas
The Mustang's headlights cut through the night as Jack Ryan, JR., dropped the six-speed manual transmission into fourth, accelerating through the winding turn. Between the roaring 450-horsepower V8, the wind in his face, and the mild Texas weather, he didn't even try to temper his broad smile. In fact, the only thing making this night drive less than perfect was the empty passenger seat beside him.
As if on cue, his phone rang.
Jack eyed the caller ID on the console, and though he wouldn't have thought it possible a moment ago, his grin somehow grew even wider. Where the caller's contact information had once been a first and last name, the personal details now bore just a single word in all capital letters.
Jack liked the sound of that.
"Hey, baby," he said, answering the call as he eased off the gas, allowing the throaty engine noise to drop to a low rumble. Renting a muscle car convertible was a fine way to tool through the Lone Star State, but the ambient noise was hell on phone conversations.
"Hey yourself. I'm lonely. Know anyone who'd want to keep me company?"
Lisanne Robertson's husky voice sent shivers down Jack's spine. His right foot wanted to nudge the accelerator at the thought of the raven-haired beauty sitting alone in their Rainey Street hotel room. But as much as he wanted to free the horses lurking beneath the Mustang's hood, he resisted the urge. Flooring the pedal might get him back to Austin a couple of minutes sooner, but that would be at the expense of listening to his future bride tell him how much she missed him.
Not a trade Jack was willing to make.
"Lisanne Robertson," he said, catching the slight slur in his fiancée's words, "are you tipsy?"
"Get your cute self back here and find out."
This time it wasn't just the engine's RPMs Lisanne's words set racing.
Looking at the Mustang's dashboard clock, Jack did some quick math. He was currently heading west along Highway 79, somewhere in the no-man's land between the tiny towns of Rockdale and Thorndale. While the scenic ranches and farmers' fields had been quite beautiful when he'd made the drive to College Station earlier today, there wasn't much to see this time of the night.
That said, each of the little towns along this stretch of two-lane highway functioned as a de facto speed trap. While Jack could legally do seventy miles an hour on the meandering back road, the speed limit dropped to thirty-five within each city's incorporation limits. Texas cops were both professional and polite, but they were also quite happy to capitalize on the municipal payday offered by lawbreaking out-of-towners. Still, the longer he listened to the raspy words coming from the other end of the line, the more a speeding ticket seemed like a fair bargain if the money meant seeing his future wife that much sooner.
"You told me you weren't drinking tonight," Jack said.
"That was the plan, but Dawn & Hawkes were playing at Karlie's favorite bar, so we went to see them. Karlie may have told the bartender that I'd just gotten engaged, so he tried to buy me shots. I passed."
"But?" Jack said.
"But some college kids tried to pick us up," Lisanne said. "Somehow they didn't see my shiny new ring."
As a former college kid, Jack thought Lisanne might have been giving her would-be suitors far too much credit, but he was enjoying the sound of her voice way too much to interrupt.
"What happened next?" Jack said.
"I told those frat boys that I was waiting for my fiancé
"How'd that work?" he asked.
"Not well," she said. "They started buying drinks for Karlie instead."
He smiled as he touched the brakes.
Karlie was Karlie Dill-Lisanne's college roommate and still one of her closest friends. After she'd shared the happy news with her parents, Lisanne had called Karlie. Never one to miss an opportunity, Karlie had suggested that Lisanne bring her fiancé to Austin so that she could meet the lucky boy.
While Jack loved traveling, he hadn't been so keen on accompanying Lisanne to a girls' weekend until his future bride had uttered the magic words-Texas A&M football
. The Fightin' Aggies were at Kyle Field, and better yet, tickets were still available.
In a quick fit of negotiations that Jack thought boded well for their future nuptials, he and Lisanne had hammered out an agreement. They would fly from D.C. to Austin Sunday morning and rent a room at the famous Van Zandt near Rainey Street. Jack would drive over to College Station for the football game while Lisanne spent Saturday afternoon and evening catching up with Karlie. Jack would return after the night game ended, and they would meet Karlie for lunch on Monday and then grab the evening flight back to D.C.
Or maybe not.
"Still haven't heard the part about you getting tipsy," Jack said.
"I'm getting there," Lisanne said. "After Karlie sent the UT kids packing, we were about to call it a night. But the bartender said he was working on a new drink, and he really wanted some feedback. He begged me to try it, Jack."
Jack just bet he had.
Lisanne Robertson had inherited her olive complexion, thick black hair, and deep chocolate eyes from her Lebanese mother. Her American father had bestowed upon her a desire to serve that took the form of a couple of years as an active-duty Marine followed by a stint in law enforcement before coming to the attention of an organization named The Campus. Lisanne's lean, athletic frame reflected her vocation.
So did the fact that she was missing one arm below the elbow.
The bullet that had taken her arm had nearly ended her life. For Lisanne, like Jack, physical fitness was a job requirement, not a hobby.
When he'd left for the football game, Lisanne had been wearing a fitted Longhorns T-shirt and tight jeans that showcased miles of legs. That outfit, coupled with her smile, had been enough to cause Jack to reconsider his sojourn to College Station. Knowing his fiancée, Lisanne had significantly upgraded her wardrobe before hitting the concert with Karlie. Pretty girls certainly weren't scarce in the legion of bars that called Sixth Street home, but Jack thought that Austin wasn't altogether ready for the phenomenon that was Lisanne Robertson.
He sure wasn't.
"What did he make you?" Jack said.
"He called it the McConaughey. It was like a margarita, but spicy. It was so good
The emphasis Lisanne put on her last two words made Jack chuckle as he wisely refrained from asking just how many of the concoctions she'd sampled before rendering her verdict.
A drink named after Austin's favorite son had to be good.
"Is that why you called?" Jack said. "To rub it in?"
"No," Lisanne said. "I called because I miss you and
I'm tipsy. Are you here yet?"
Jack very much wished he was here yet for more reasons than one. If he was being honest, he would have to admit that their weekend of fun was born of more than just a trip to see Karlie. He and Lisanne had come to a relational fork in the road. A fork that led down two very different paths. The weekend in Austin was meant to give them time together to think, and while he was no closer to solving their impasse, he did know one thing-life was much better in Lisanne Robertson's arms.
Unfortunately, the laws of physics cared neither for slightly intoxicated fiancées nor the rumbling of Detroit's finest engine. As much as he wished otherwise, Jack still had a good fifty minutes before he'd be handing the Mustang's keys over to the Van Zandt's valet. If experience was any guide, Lisanne would be fast asleep by then.
He opened his mouth to tell the woman he loved as much, when everything changed.
The crash happened so quickly that Jack almost missed it.
Though he was less than fifty yards from the colliding vehicles, the violence was still hard to follow. The impact quickly morphed into a tangle of metal and a cloud of debris. Like dancers joined at the hip, the two sedans spun from the winding Texas road into the surrounding brush. One moment, the stretch of blacktop had been the scene of crushing metal, skidding tires, and flashing headlights. The next, the two-lane highway was clear, all signs of violence erased from the double yellow lines as if an artist had wiped the entire scene from his slate. Unexpected violence and the chaos accompanying it had a way of confusing the senses and jarring the observer's sense of time.
Especially if the person witnessing it was unaccustomed to such things.
Jack Ryan, Jr., was not such a person.
Even so, it still took a moment or two for his OODA loop to run its course. For his brain to move from one stage to the next. And while Jack was not in a fighter jet's cockpit like the cycle's originator, he was in the driver's seat of a Ford Mustang GT. The car's snarling engine propelled him toward the accident at eighty-eight feet per second. Meaning in the time it took the average person to inhale, he had to process what had just happened and decide on a course of action. Under these harsh time constraints, Jack could have been forgiven for continuing past the wreck as his brain turned sensory inputs into thoughts.
Jack did not continue.
Though he was no more race car driver than fighter pilot, he was a member of a cadre of men and women who were arguably even more elect. This was not the first time Jack's mind had been required to analyze the unexpected and render a series of life-or-death decisions.
Nor would this probably be the last.
But Jack did not dwell on the oddities of his chosen profession any more than he considered what the crash's implications might mean for his already compressed schedule.
Instead, he acted.
Jack downshifted, transforming the engine's growl into a full-fledged roar even as he activated his hazard lights and angled the Mustang toward the shoulder.
"Hey, baby," Jack said, "I've got to go. I just saw a wreck."
"Watch yourself," Lisanne said.
Her previously flirty tone was a thing of the past.
There was a reason for the change.
Like Lisanne, Jack was an operative for an off-the-books intelligence organization known as The Campus. While he and Lisanne were in Austin purely for recreation, The Campus's long and distinguished list of adversaries weren't much for vacations.
"Always do," Jack said.
"Give me a call once you're back on the road," Lisanne said, her voice clear and her diction precise. "I love you."
"Love you too," Jack said.
As he hung up with his future bride, Jack had two thoughts. One, Lisanne wasn't anywhere near as intoxicated as she'd pretended to be. Two, a random car crash on a moonlit highway was not cause for concern for a normal person.
John Patrick Ryan, Jr., was not a normal person.Chapter 2
Backcountry Texas roads were a treat, especially in a convertible with power to spare and a traffic-free road. Fields of hay and grain were interspersed with wooded lots full of mesquite, live oaks, and cedar. Rolling hills dotted with cattle sat on either side of winding gravel paths that led to ranch houses. Some of the structures were fit for the set of Yellowstone, but most were simple affairs of river stone and wood and had probably been in the same family for generations.
Out here, motorists adhered to an unwritten courtesy that was a far cry from the Darwinian rules of the road followed by commuters in Austin, Houston, or Dallas. Though the highways were single lane for long stretches, people pulled off to the shoulder so that faster traffic could pass them by. But even the most polite driver couldn't dodge a car they couldn't see. And while the country's mild mannerisms and slower pace were delightful, there was nothing mild or slow about a three-thousand-pound mass of steel and plastic striking another at seventy miles per hour.
In a collision of that magnitude, even airbags wouldn't be of much help.
Jack's headlights played across the gravel shoulder as he brought the Mustang to a stop.
A light rain had fallen earlier in the evening and the roads were still slick with a rehydrated slurry of grime, oil, and the dirt and grit that were the typical by-products of vehicular traffic. As a Maryland native, Jack had grown up learning to drive on snowy roads. Accordingly, he'd snickered when a Texas native had warned him about driving in the rain, but Jack's arrogance hadn't lasted long. The black ice that terrorized his fellow northerners had nothing on Texas roads after a rainstorm.
In this case, the slick road had netted at least two victims. Though Jack had been certain the collision was between a pair of vehicles, he couldn't see anything beyond a vehicle-shaped hole in the underbrush lining the side of the road. Based on the way the terrain sloped downward, Jack guessed that a ravine or perhaps a creek lay at the bottom of the embankment.
This was no mere fender bender.
The portion of his brain that understood battlefield calculus suggested that what lay beyond the crushed limbs and broken bushes would rate far more serious than just bruises and bumps. Jack thumbed a button on the steering wheel and instructed the robotic voice that answered to call 911. Though the Mustang was a rental, he had still taken the time to sync his iPhone.
Driving the Texas back roads was a lot of fun.
Navigating them was a different matter.
"Nine-one-one, what is the nature of your emergency?"
"I need to report a multiple vehicle accident on Highway 79," Jack said. "I'm about ten miles west of Milano. The accident is on the north side of the road. Both vehicles have disappeared into the brush, and I'm afraid they've tumbled down an embankment."
"I'm dispatching EMS now. If it's safe for you to do so, can you take a look at the crash and describe it for me? I need to know if either vehicle is on fire."
"Just a minute," Jack said.
With the Mustang's top down, he'd elected to squirrel his phone away in the compartment between the front seats. Motoring down a back road with the wind in your face and Parker McCollum on the radio was great until an unexpectedly sharp turn sent your phone tumbling out into space.
Not that this had ever happened to Jack, of course.
But while the sports car's open roof indirectly hindered Jack's ability to reach his phone, it had the opposite effect on his hearing.
Or more precisely, the hearing of an all-too-familiar sound.
Jack did not hold an ordinary job.
To be fair, not much about his life was ordinary. His father was President of the United States, and his mother had survived an assassination attempt by the Irish Republican Army. But compared to his career, these abnormalities were but blips on the radar. Jack’s choice of vocations was difficult to describe. He worked for an organization that didn’t officially exist doing things that didn’t officially happen.
As such, he was intimately familiar with both gunfire and the weapons that produced it.
He exited the Mustang and drew the SIG Sauer 365 SAS micro-compact holstered beneath his untucked shirt. While the organization that employed Jack was associated with the US intelligence community, it did not bestow upon its employees the authority to carry guns while traveling on commercial airlines.
That was fine.
Having found himself on the receiving end of ambushes a few too many times, Jack had arrived at a declaration of sorts. Namely, that he would never travel unarmed again. As such, he’d checked his pistol and ammunition with his luggage and reunited with them both in Austin. Some people might have called this practice conspiracy minded.
Those people had never spent a day in Jack Ryan’s shoes.
At six foot two and two hundred and twenty pounds, Jack was not physically insignificant and the hours he’d spent sweating and bleeding in The Campus’s fight house had well equipped him to use the advantages good genes and fierce sessions in the weight room had gifted him.
Even so, only a fool relied on physical prowess to win the day.
A firearm in the hands of a trained shooter always trumped martial prowess.
Jack led with the SIG as he followed the unmistakable tracks from the collision even as he unconsciously characterized two distinct weapon reports. The short pop, pop, pop belonged to a pistol while the deeper, longer barks were made by an assault rifle.
Probably an AK-47.
Copyright © 2023 by Don Bentley. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.