If you’ve read my serialized STAR TREK novel on NOQ Report over the last several weeks, you’ve probably realized that I dabble in writing fiction from time to time. Actually, I’ve been cranking out the novels since I was sixteen–not very good ones back in those days, mind you, but they did put me on the path to publication with my sci-fi thrillers HAMMERJACK and PRODIGAL, plus the culmination of a lifelong dream when Pocket Books editor Marco Palmieri hired me to write a Borg story for his TREK anthology SEVEN DEADLY SINS.
Well, now I’m back with a brand-new thriller, CANDIDATE Z–and it’s a roller coaster ride for sure! Just in case you need further convincing, allow me to quote the blurb for you:
Once the leader of an elite team of cyber-crime investigators, Hunter Lambert was among the FBI’s best and brightest—until unspeakable tragedy left her career and life in ruins. Now she works as a private security consultant, hiring her skills out to the highest bidder while seeking out clues in secret to expose the conspiracy that led to her downfall.
After a high-profile assignment goes sideways with deadly consequences, Hunter is approached by a shadowy figure with an intriguing offer: Find out who’s trying to kill him, and he’ll use his vast resources to help her get justice once and for all. The job won’t be easy, though. That’s because the client is Brad Zorne—a Silicon Valley billionaire with a list of enemies both long and powerful. Making matters even more dangerous, Zorne isn’t just running for his life. He’s also running for President of the United States.
Action, adventure, high stakes and high tech–plus an election that could forever alter the destiny of the United States! If that sounds a tad more interesting than the Democrat primary, then I invite you to join Hunter Lambert as she unravels a mystery with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing all the way until the end.
But hold on, because election season is about to get deadly.
Keep on reading for an exciting sample from…
Finding the water trucks was easy. All Hunter had to do was follow the fire.
A high-rise inferno, it spat embers a hundred feet into the arid atmosphere, casting a ruddy pall that hovered over the entirety of Center Camp like the afterglow of from a nuclear blast. As Hunter rounded the line of vehicles, the fullness of it came into her view: the Burning Man, a conflagration from base to apex, flames assuming human form and features even as they voraciously consumed both. Behind that, the makeshift temple Hunter had seen while flying in also burned spectacularly, the combined heat from the two structures rolling across the hard desert floor in waves. Even at this distance, the hot wind came on like a blast furnace, leaving Hunter amazed at how anyone could stand to get any closer—and yet there they were, gathered around it in ritual poses, thousands of bodies silhouetted against the orange light.
A justifiable target, ripe for destruction.
Hunter picked up her pace, walking along the line of trucks while her eyes eagerly searched the shadows for movement. At first she found nothing—not even a single member of the fire crew on standby, ready to drive in and battle the blaze should it get out of control. Hunter guessed that all of them had left to join the fun, confident they could run back and man the hoses if anything went wrong, never contemplating the kind of trouble she feared. That was something for the security goons to worry about—assuming they hadn’t taken off for the party themselves. So far, Hunter hadn’t spotted any of them.
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Only a hint of motion near the back of one truck.
It happened at the periphery of her vision as she slipped past—nothing more than a blur, really, which in the shimmering heat and murky half-light could have been nothing at all. But it made Hunter freeze in her tracks, her pulse quickening as she leaned back to take another look, her breathing forced but controlled as she tried to remain at one with the dark.
“Merkel?” she called out. “Is that you?”
Beats echoed through the passages between the trucks, but beneath that lay a only heavy silence. Hunter remained still, focusing intently on that silence, filtering the ambient noises out one by one and listening for any disturbance. When she heard it, the origin of the sound seemed obvious: metal on metal, in harried contact, done in reaction to her voice. She had startled someone, and now that someone tried to conceal his presence.
So what the hell are you supposed to do now?
Something foolish—no doubts about that.
Hunter eased herself into the narrow space, one step in front of the other, even though she had no idea how she would confront any danger she might find. Unarmed, she proceeded as if she held a weapon in her hands, her back up against the hard metal of the truck’s tank and her eyes trained forward. Inch by inch, she gradually made her way to the back of the truck, stopping at the very end. There, Hunter listened intently for any other sound that might tell her if someone lay in wait—but she heard nothing. Either nobody was there, or somebody waited for her to make a move.
Get out of here, Lambert, she told herself. Bring back some guys with guns.
But by then, whatever was about to happen would have happened.
Screw it, she thought, and pounced.
She hoped that in the dark she would appear armed, at least long enough to scare whoever might be there—but Hunter found only an empty patch of ground, cracked from the desert heat and torn up by tire tracks. Looking down, she also noticed a dark patch beneath the truck’s bumper, where a small pool of liquid expanded and filled the tiny crevices that surrounded it. She traced the source to a release valve on the back of the tank, which slowly dripped into the dirt. More ominously, the chain on the valve cap still swung—as if someone had just jammed it on in a hurry
But where did you go?
Crouching down, Hunter dipped a finger into the liquid and then raised it to her nose. Since this was a fire truck, there should have only been water—but as the intense smell of hydrocarbons filled her nostrils, she knew in an instant the real contents of the tank.
“Oh my God,” she whispered.
And then heard the click of a pistol cocking behind her head.
Hunter closed her eyes, raising her hands slowly. Her heartbeat doubled over the course of two seconds, then slowed down a little when she realized her brains weren’t going to get blown through her forehead—at least not yet.
“I’m unarmed,” she said, without looking back.
A man’s voice. Heavy accent, non-English speaker—the same inflections as Faisal Noor, but with none of the confidence and bravado. Hunter processed all of this, trying to generate a profile that would help her get out of this alive, but the man was nervous—scared even—and the odds of him pulling the trigger only increased.
More commanding this time, but forced. Trying to assert a control he didn’t have.
So Hunter did as she was told.
Rising to her feet slowly, she deliberately cringed. Helpless. At his mercy. That’s how she wanted him to see her. And it was easy, because that was how she felt.
But he’s not in control. You are.
Hunter turned around. She widened her eyes, wanting to make sure he saw them, but never looked directly into his. The man held a pistol on her—a 9mm CZ P-10 C with a long suppressor—his aim dead-to-rights but wavering. He stood on the shorter side, five foot nine at best, his diminutive size emphasized by the ill-fitting private security uniform he wore. The name stitched on the pocket said Merkel, but the face was a poor match. Dark skin, even darker eyes, the familial resemblance to Faisal Noor was unmistakable—a cousin perhaps. A newly-minted soldier of Allah.
“Who are you?” he demanded.
Hunter noticed a bloodstain on the collar of his uniform. Not his blood—probably Merkel’s. Which meant that he had already killed. Whatever she did, she now knew there wasn’t any talking her way out of it.
“I’m with the Park Service,” she lied.
“What are you doing?”
“Environmental inspection,” she lied again. “Seriously though, I was just on my way to the party when I thought I heard something—”
“Does anybody know you’re here?”
The money question. Hunter knew what would happen next if she answered no.
“I, uh—” she stammered.
He jammed the pistol in her face.
“Does anybody KNOW?”
“My—my boss!” she blurted. “He’s, uh. . .he’s expecting me to report in a couple of minutes.”
The gunman clenched his jaw as his eyes darted back and forth, rage and confusion battling it out for supremacy. He didn’t know what to do—though it wouldn’t take long for him to figure out that the safest course was to kill her.
Keep him distracted, Lambert. Keep him in doubt.
“What are you going to do?” she asked, subtly asserting calm. “That truck is full of gas. Were you planning to drive it through the crowd and into the Burning Man?”
“Shut up,” the gunman said—but quietly, not looking at her as he spoke. His mind was elsewhere, his head shaking ever so slightly as Hunter read the questions going through his mind: Proceed with the attack or call it off? Kill her now or take her hostage? Neither Allah nor his family would look kindly upon his death should he fail in his mission.
“That would kill a lot of people,” Hunter pressed. “Part of you knows that’s wrong. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Shut UP!” he repeated—assuring himself, reasserting himself.
Failing himself—so badly that he didn’t even notice how Hunter had taken a step toward him.
“No matter what you’ve done, it’s not too late,” she prodded. “This doesn’t have to go any farther. It can stop right now. You have the power to do that.”
But the gunman barely heard her. He was now talking to himself, muttering under his breath in Arabic. The same words, over and over again, a droning mantra.
She was losing him.
“It’s all in your hands,” Hunter said. “My life. Your life. Everyone’s life.”
One more step. That much closer.
But close enough?
It would have to be. The gunman wouldn’t allow another. Finishing his prayer, he looked her straight in the eyes and leveled his pistol between them.
And Hunter looked over his shoulder, to the help that hadn’t arrived.
“Oh thank God you’re here—” she began.
Her feint made the gunman flinch. He turned his head slightly in that direction, his aim moving with it. With the business end of the CZ suddenly pointed away, Hunter lunged. Her right hand locked around the wrist of his shooting hand and forced it up toward the sky, where the gunman fired a round before he realized what had happened. Her left hand, meanwhile, clenched into a fist, which she brought to bear with all the might she could muster—right in the middle of his face.
Bone crunched. Blood exploded.
And both of them went down.
The gunman landed flat on his back, knocking the breath from his lungs and eliciting a load groan. Hunter, meanwhile, landed hard on his chest. He gasped and convulsed as he tried to breathe, the pistol flying out of his hand and tumbling into the darkness. Hunter immediately scrambled after the weapon on hands and knees, the gunman clawing after her and grabbing her by the ankle. He tried to pull her back, which earned him a swift kick in the head, forcing him to let go as he unleashed a slew of curses in her direction.
From that point on, Hunter didn’t look back. She stumbled to her feet and ran to where the CZ might have landed, knowing that her survival—and the survival of so many others—depended on finding it.
There! Right there!
Gunmetal black against salt flat white: the CZ lay on the open ground only a few feet ahead. Hunter dove for the weapon, falling short and sliding the rest of the way, acrid flecks of dust striking her eyes and poisoning her vision—though the memory of where the pistol lay had been burned into her frontal lobe like battle trauma.
Hunter clutched at the pistol and grabbed it, her finger finding the trigger.
She rolled over on her back, pointing the CZ in the direction of her pursuer. He bore down on her with menacing speed, fueled by anger and adrenaline, his slight frame magnified to hulking proportions in the hellish firelight. Hunter didn’t even try to tell the man to stop, because even if he heard her he wouldn’t have cared. Right now all we wanted to do was wrap his hands around her neck, and make her pay the price for the blood she had drawn first.
She pulled the trigger.
It could have been once, twice, or more times than that—she couldn’t tell. Half-blind, Hunter only knew that one of the shots hit, because it stopped her attacker in mid-step and spun him around. He cried out in pain and clutched his left shoulder, sagging but not falling.
And this time, Hunter screamed until her throat could have burst.
But her attacker couldn’t even contemplate that. His prayers had sealed the deal with his God, with no promise of return. Staggering, stumbling at first, he broke into a run in the opposite direction—away from Hunter, back toward the trucks.
Toward the Burning Man.
“Dammit,” Hunter seethed.
Untangling her arms and legs, she got back on her feet and wiped her eyes, catching sight of the man just before he disappeared between two of the tankers. It didn’t appear as if he was making a break for the gasoline truck—it would take too long to start and get in gear, and by then Hunter would be serving up a second bullet to finish what the first had started. That could only mean that he was headed for Center Camp, to use the last weapon he had left at his disposal—a weapon he hadn’t wanted to waste on Hunter.
A weapon that could only be used once.
Hunter sprinted after him.
She darted between the same two trucks, taking the same pathway into the open and toward the perimeter around Center Camp. She reacquired him there, as he jumped the ropes outside the fire zone and barely cleared them. Hunter could tell he was hurting. Each step was slower than the previous one, his balance shot from having to hold his wounded arm, spurting blood under pressure from his racing heart—and still he lumbered on. Hunter closed the distance quickly as he plowed into the crowd, shoving them aside to the sound of their protests and swearing, but the man paid them no heed. He was a virus now, inserting himself deep into where he could inflict the most damage, and once he had gone far enough…
“Get out!” Hunter screamed at them as she ran. “Get out of the way!”
She waved the pistol around to drive the point home. It had the intended effect, kicking off a frenzy that split the crowd down the middle, creating a passage for her and opening a dead zone around the man she chased. With him exposed again, Hunter leveled the CZ in his direction and drew a bead on center mass—right in the middle of his back. This time, at this range, a double-tap would not miss.
The man must have sensed it also, because he stopped cold, turned to face her—and threw his head back to roar in the most primal display of rage she had ever seen.
As he spoke the words, the man tore his jacket open. Underneath, a collection of plastique blocks had been sewn into the pockets of a canvas vest, wires protruding from them and snaking around his waist to where they all linked up with flashing a red LED. It didn’t take an expert to recognize the device—because when the people of the crowd saw it, every single one of them obeyed his command.
She held the gun on him while he held up a trigger switch, his thumb hovering over the button that would detonate the suicide belt. The resulting explosion would be a lot smaller than if the man had succeeded in his plan to set himself off while driving the gasoline truck through Center Camp—but there was still enough explosive to kill dozens and maim countless others.
A dark consolation prize, his for the taking.
He smiled, teeth caked black with blood.
“Don’t—” she began.
“ALLAHU AKBAR!” he finished.
And pressed the button on the dying echoes of his cry.