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Hunting Zero

Автор:
Джек Марс
Hunting Zero

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Jack Mars

Jack Mars is the USA Today bestselling author of the LUKE STONE thriller series, which includes seven books. He is also the author of the new FORGING OF LUKE STONE prequel series, comprising three books (and counting); and of the AGENT ZERO spy thriller series, comprising six books (and counting).

Jack loves to hear from you, so please feel free to visit www.Jackmarsauthor.com to join the email list, receive a free book, receive free giveaways, connect on Facebook and Twitter, and stay in touch!

Copyright © 2019 by Jack Mars. All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior permission of the author. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return it and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictionally. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

BOOKS BY JACK MARS

LUKE STONE THRILLER SERIES

ANY MEANS NECESSARY (Book #1)

OATH OF OFFICE (Book #2)

SITUATION ROOM (Book #3)

OPPOSE ANY FOE (Book #4)

PRESIDENT ELECT (Book #5)

OUR SACRED HONOR (Book #6)

HOUSE DIVIDED (Book #7)

FORGING OF LUKE STONE PREQUEL SERIES

PRIMARY TARGET (Book #1)

PRIMARY COMMAND (Book #2)

PRIMARY THREAT (Book #3)

AN AGENT ZERO SPY THRILLER SERIES

AGENT ZERO (Book #1)

TARGET ZERO (Book #2)

HUNTING ZERO (Book #3)

TRAPPING ZERO (Book #4)

FILE ZERO (Book #5)

RECALL ZERO (Book #6)

Agent Zero – Book 2 Summary (recap sheet to be included in book 3)
Samples of an ancient, deadly virus are stolen from Siberia and unleashed in Spain, killing hundreds in hours. Though his memory as a CIA agent is still fragmented, Agent Zero is reinstated to help find and secure the virus before a terrorist organization can release it in the United States

Agent Zero: More memories of his former life as a CIA agent have returned to him, most notably that of a clandestine plot by the American government to initiate a pre-planned war for insidious motivations. The details of what he knew two years ago are muddied and faded, but before he had the chance to dig further he returned home to discover that his two daughters had been kidnapped from their home.

Maya and Sara Lawson: While their father was away, the girls were under the watchful eye of Mr. Thompson, their neighbor and a retired CIA operative. When the assassin Rais broke in, Thompson did his best to fend him off but was ultimately killed, and Maya and Sara were taken.

Agent Maria Johansson: Once again Maria proved an indispensable ally when she helped to secure the smallpox virus from being released. Though her newfound relationship with Kent borders on the romantic, she has secrets of her own, having met with a mysterious Ukrainian operative in the airport at Kiev to discuss where Agent Zero’s allegiances lie.

Rais: After being beaten and left for dead in Switzerland, Rais recovered for several weeks in a hospital under guard and handcuffs. With nothing but time on his hands, he engineered not only a daring and bloody escape, but also managed to abscond to the US before international borders were shut down due to the virus. From there it was not difficult to find the Lawson home, kill the old man, and kidnap Agent Zero’s two teenage daughters.

Agent John Watson: As part of the team sent to secure the smallpox virus, Watson made it abundantly clear that he has a distaste for Agent Zero’s daredevil tactics. Nevertheless, after their success in stopping Imam Khalil, the two reached an understanding and a mutual respect.

Assistant Director Ashleigh Riker: A former intelligence officer who has worked her way up the chain to Special Operations Group, Riker works directly under Deputy Director Shawn Cartwright on the op to secure the virus. She does not mask her disdain for Agent Zero and the license the agency gives him. After another agent attacked Zero unprovoked, he began to suspect that Riker might be in on the conspiracy—and therefore not to be trusted.

CHAPTER ONE

At age sixteen, Maya Lawson was mostly certain she was going to die soon.

She sat in the backseat of a large-cabbed pickup truck as it barreled down I-95, heading south through Virginia. Her legs still felt weak from the trauma and terror of what she had experienced barely more than an hour earlier. She stared straight ahead impassively, her mouth slightly open in a shell-shocked, blank gaze.

The truck had belonged to her neighbor, Mr. Thompson. He was dead now, likely still lying in the tiled foyer of the Lawson home in Alexandria. The truck’s current driver was his murderer.

Seated beside Maya was her younger sister, Sara, only fourteen. Her legs were drawn up beneath her and her body curled into Maya’s. Sara had stopped sobbing, at least for now, but each breath escaped her open mouth with a soft moan.

Sara had no idea what was going on. She knew only what she had seen—the man in their house. Mr. Thompson dead. The assailant threatening to break her sister’s limbs to get Sara to open the door to their basement panic room. She didn’t know any of what Maya knew, and even Maya knew only a small part of the whole truth.

But the elder Lawson girl did know one thing, or at least she was mostly certain of it: she was going to die soon. She did not know what the driver of the truck was planning to do with them—he had made the promise that he wouldn’t hurt them as long as they did what he asked—but that didn’t matter.

Despite her slack-jawed expression, Maya’s mind was working a mile a minute. Only one thing was important now, and that was keeping Sara safe. The man behind the wheel was alert and capable, but at some point he would falter. As long as they did what he asked, he would get complacent, even for just a second, and in that moment she would act. She did not know yet what she would do, but it would have to be direct, ruthless, and debilitating. Give Sara the opportunity to flee, to get to safety, to other people, to a phone.

It would likely cost Maya her life. But she was already very much aware of that.

Another soft moan escaped her sister’s lips. She’s in shock, Maya thought. But the moan became a murmur, and she realized that Sara was trying to speak. She bent her head close to Sara’s lips to hear her quiet question.

“Why is this happening to us?”

“Shh.” Maya cradled Sara’s head against her chest and gently stroked her hair. “It’s going to be okay.”

She regretted it as soon as she said it; it was an empty sentiment, something that people say when they have nothing else to offer. Clearly it was not okay, and she could not promise that it would be.

“Sins of the father.” The man behind the wheel spoke for the first time since he had forced them into the truck. He said it casually, eerily calmly. Then louder he said, “This is happening to you because of the decisions made and actions taken by one Reid Lawson, known to others as Kent Steele, known to many more as Agent Zero.”

Kent Steele? Agent Zero? Maya had no idea what this man, the assassin who called himself Rais, was talking about. But she knew some things, enough to know that her father was an agent of some government group—FBI, possibly CIA.

“He took everything from me.” Rais stared straight ahead at the highway beyond them, but he spoke with a tone of unadulterated hatred. “Now I’ve taken everything from him.”

“He’s going to find us,” Maya said. Her tone was hushed, not defiant, as if she were simply stating a fact. “He’s going to come for us, and he’s going to kill you.”

Rais nodded as if he agreed with her. “He will come for you; that is true. And he will try to kill me. Twice he has made attempts and left me for dead… once in Denmark, and again in Switzerland. Did you know that?”

Maya said nothing. She had suspected that her dad had something to do with the terrorist plot that unfolded a month earlier in February, when a radical faction tried to bomb the World Economic Forum in Davos.

“But I endure,” Rais continued. “You see, I was led to believe that it was my destiny to kill your father, but I was wrong. It is my fate. Do you know the difference?” He scoffed lightly. “Of course you don’t. You are a child. Destiny is comprised of the events that one is supposed to fulfill. It is something we can control, something we can dictate. Fate, on the other hand, is beyond us. It is determined by another power, one we cannot fully comprehend. I don’t believe I am allowed to perish until your father dies at my hand.”

“You’re Amun,” Maya said. It wasn’t a question.

“I was, once. But Amun is no more. I alone endure.”

The assassin had confirmed what she had already feared; that he was a fanatic, someone who had been indoctrinated by the cultlike terrorism group of Amun into believing that his actions were not only justified, but necessary. Maya was gifted with the dangerous combination of intelligence and curiosity; she had read much on the subjects of terrorism and fanaticism in the wake of the Davos bombing and her speculation that her father’s absence at the time it had happened meant he had been a part of stopping and dismantling the organization.

 

So she knew very well that this man could not be swayed with pleas, prayers, or supplication. She knew there was no changing his mind, and she was aware that hurting children was not beyond him. All of it only strengthened her resolve that she had to act as soon as she saw the chance.

“I have to use the bathroom.”

“I don’t care,” Rais responded.

Maya frowned. She had once eluded an Amun member on the New Jersey boardwalk by feigning the need for the bathroom—she didn’t believe her father’s cover story about the man being a local gang member for even a second—and had managed to get Sara to safety then. It was the only thing she could think of in the current moment that would allow them even a precious minute alone, but her request had been denied.

They drove for several more minutes in silence, heading southbound on the interstate while Maya stroked Sara’s hair. Her younger sister seemed to have calmed to a point that she was no longer crying, or had simply run out of tears.

Rais put the blinker on and eased the truck off the next exit. Maya peered out the window and felt a small surge of hope; they were pulling into a rest stop. It was tiny, little more than a picnic area surrounded by trees and a small, squat brick building with restrooms, but it was something.

He was going to let them use the bathroom.

The trees, she thought. If Sara can get into the woods, maybe she can lose him.

Rais parked the truck and let the engine idle for a moment as he scanned the building. Maya did too. There were two trucks there, long tractor trailers parked parallel to the brick building, but no one else. Outside the bathrooms under an awning were a couple of vending machines. She noted with dismay that there were no cameras, at least none visible, on the premises.

“The right side is the women’s restroom,” Rais said. “I will walk you there. If you try to scream or call out to anyone, I will kill them. If you so much as gesture or signal to anyone that anything is amiss, I will kill them. Their blood will be on your hands.”

Sara was trembling in her arms again. Maya hugged her tightly around the shoulders.

“The two of you will hold hands. If you separate, Sara will get hurt.” He twisted around partially to face them—specifically Maya. He had already assumed that of the two, she would be the one more likely to give him trouble. “Do you understand?”

Maya nodded, averting her gaze from his wild green eyes. He had dark lines beneath them, as if he hadn’t slept in some time, and his dark hair was shorn short on top of his head. He did not seem all that old, certainly younger than their father, but she could not guess his age.

He held up a black pistol—the Glock that had belonged to her father. Maya had tried to use it on him when he broke into the house, and he had taken it from her. “This will be in my hand, and my hand will be in my pocket. Again I will remind you that trouble for me is trouble for her.” He gestured toward Sara with his head. She whimpered slightly.

Rais got out of the truck first, sticking his hand and the pistol into his black jacket pocket. Then he opened the rear door of the cab. Maya climbed out first, her legs shaky as her feet touched the pavement. She reached back into the cab for Sara’s hand and helped her younger sister out.

“Go.” The girls walked in front of him as they headed for the bathroom. Sara shivered; late March in Virginia meant that the weather was just starting to turn, lingering in the mid- to high fifties, and both of them were still in their pajamas. Maya wore only flip-flops on her feet, striped flannel pants, and a black tank top. Her sister had on sneakers with no socks, poplin pajama pants emblazoned with pineapples, and one of their dad’s old T-shirts, a tie-dyed rag with the logo of some band neither of them had ever heard of.

Maya turned the knob and pushed into the bathroom first. She instinctively wrinkled her nose in disgust; the place smelled of urine and mold, and the floor was wet from a leaking sink pipe. Still she pulled Sara along behind her into the restroom.

There was a single window in the place, a plate of frosted glass high up in the wall that looked like it would swing outward with a good push. If she could boost her sister up and out, she could distract Rais while Sara ran…

“Move.” Maya flinched as the assassin pushed into the bathroom behind them. Her heart sank. He wasn’t going to let them be alone, even for a minute. “You, there.” He pointed to Maya and the second stall of the three. “You, there.” He instructed Sara to the third.

Maya let go of her sister’s hand and entered the stall. It was filthy; she wouldn’t have wanted to use it even if she actually had to go, but she would at least have to pretend. She started to push the door closed but Rais stopped it with the palm of his hand.

“No,” he told her. “Leave it open.” And then he turned his back, facing the exit.

He’s not taking any chances. She slowly sat on the closed toilet seat lid and breathed into her hands. There was nothing she could do. She had no weapons against him. He had a knife and two guns, one of which was currently in his hand, hidden in the jacket pocket. She could try to jump him and let Sara get out, but he was blocking the door. He had already killed Mr. Thompson, a former Marine and a bear of a man who most would have avoided a fight with at any cost. What chance would she have against him?

Sara sniffled in the stall beside her. This isn’t the right time to act, Maya knew. She had hoped, but she would have to wait again.

Suddenly there was a loud creak as the door to the bathroom was pushed open, and a surprised female voice said, “Oh! Excuse me… Am I in the wrong restroom?”

Rais took a step to the side, past the stall and out of Maya’s view. “So sorry, ma’am. No, you’re in the right place.” His voice immediately took on a pleasant, even courteous affectation. “My two daughters are in here and… well, maybe I’m overprotective, but you just can’t be too careful these days.”

Anger swelled in Maya’s chest at the ruse. The fact that this man had taken them from their father and would dare to pretend to be him made her face hot with rage.

“Oh. I see. I just need to use the sink,” the woman told him.

“By all means.”

Maya heard the clacking of shoes against tile, and then a woman came partially into view, facing away from her as she twisted the faucet knob. She looked to be middle-aged, with blonde hair just past her shoulders and dressed smartly.

“Can’t say I blame you,” the woman said to Rais. “Normally I would never stop in a place like this, but I spilled coffee on myself on the way to visit family, and… uh…” She trailed off as she gazed into the mirror.

In the reflection, the woman could see the open stall door, and Maya seated there atop the closed toilet. Maya had no idea what she might look like to a stranger—hair tangled, cheeks puffy from crying, eyes rimmed red—but she could imagine it was likely cause for alarm.

The woman’s gaze flitted to Rais and then back to the mirror. “Uh… I just couldn’t drive another hour and a half with my hands sticky…” She glanced over her shoulder, the water still running, and then she mouthed three very clear words to Maya.

Are you okay?

Maya’s lower lip trembled. Please don’t talk to me. Please don’t even look at me. She slowly shook her head. No.

Rais’s back must have been turned again, facing the door, because the woman nodded slowly. No! Maya thought desperately. She wasn’t trying to plead for help.

She was trying to keep this woman from suffering the same fate as Thompson.

Maya waved her hand at the woman and mouthed one word back at her. Go. Go.

The woman frowned deeply, her hands still dripping wet. She glanced in Rais’s direction again. “I suppose it would be too much to ask for paper towels, huh?”

She said it a bit too forcefully.

Then she gestured to Maya with her thumb and pinky, making a phone signal with her hand. She seemed to be suggesting she would call someone.

Please just go.

As the woman turned back toward the door, there was a blur of motion in the air. It happened so fast that at first Maya wasn’t even sure it had happened at all. The woman froze, her eyes widening in shock.

A thin arc of blood spurted from her open throat, spraying against the mirror and sink.

Maya clamped both hands over her mouth to stifle the scream that rose from her lungs. At the same time, the woman’s hands flew to her neck, but there was no stopping the damage that had been done. Blood ran in rivulets over and between her fingers as she sank to her knees, a soft gurgle escaping her lips.

Maya squeezed her eyes shut, both hands still over her mouth. She didn’t want to see it. She didn’t want to watch this woman die because of her. Her breath came in heaving, smothered sobs. From the next stall she heard Sara whimpering softly.

When she dared to open her eyes again, the woman stared back at her. One cheek rested against the filthy wet floor.

The pool of blood that had escaped her neck nearly reached Maya’s feet.

Rais bent at the waist and cleaned his knife on the woman’s blouse. When he looked up at Maya again, it was not anger or distress in his too-green eyes. It was disappointment.

“I told you what would happen,” he said softly. “You tried to signal to her.”

Tears blurred Maya’s vision. “No,” she managed to choke out. She couldn’t control her trembling lips, her shaking hands. “I-I didn’t…”

“Yes,” he said calmly. “You did. Her blood is on your hands.”

Maya began hyperventilating, her breaths coming in wheezing gulps. She bent over, putting her head between her knees, her eyes clenched shut and her fingers in her hair.

First Mr. Thompson, and now this innocent woman. They had both died simply by being too close to her, too close to what this maniac wanted—and he had proven twice now that he was willing to kill, even indiscriminately, to get what he wanted.

When she finally regained control of her breathing and dared to look up again, Rais had the woman’s black handbag and was rooting through it. She watched as he took out her phone and tore out both the battery and the SIM card.

“Stand up,” he ordered Maya as he entered the stall. She stood quickly, flattening herself against the metal stall partition and holding her breath.

Rais flushed the battery and SIM down the toilet. Then he turned to face her, only inches away in the narrow space. She couldn’t meet his gaze. Instead she stared at his chin.

He dangled something in front of her face—a set of car keys.

“Let’s go,” he said quietly. He left the stall, seemingly having no problem walking through the wide puddle of blood on the floor.

Maya blinked. The rest stop wasn’t at all about letting them use the bathroom. It wasn’t this assassin showing an ounce of humanity. It was a chance for him to ditch Thompson’s truck. Because the police might be looking for it.

At least she hoped they were. If her father hadn’t come home yet, there was little chance that anyone would know that the Lawson girls were missing.

Maya stepped as gingerly as possible to avoid the puddle of blood—and to avoid looking at the body on the floor. Every joint felt like gelatin. She felt weak, powerless, against this man. All the resolve that she had mustered only minutes ago in the truck had dissolved like sugar in boiling water.

She took Sara by the hand. “Don’t look,” she whispered, and directed her younger sister around the woman’s body. Sara stared at the ceiling, taking long breaths through her open mouth. Fresh tears streaked both of her cheeks. Her face was white as a sheet and her hand felt cold, clammy.

Rais pulled the bathroom door open just a few inches and peered outside. Then he held up a hand. “Wait.”

Maya peered around him and saw a portly man in a trucker’s cap walking away from the men’s room, patting his hands dry on his jeans. She squeezed Sara’s hand, and with her other she instinctively smoothed her own tangled, messy hair.

She couldn’t fight this assassin, not unless she had a weapon. She couldn’t try to enlist the help of a stranger, or they might suffer the same fate as the dead woman behind them. She had only one choice now, and that was to wait and hope that her dad came for them… which he could only do if he knew where they were, and there was nothing to help him find them. Maya had no way to leave clues or a trail.

 

Her fingers snagged in her hair and came away with a few loose strands. She shook them off her hand and they fell slowly to the floor.

Hair.

She had hair. And hair could be tested—that was basic forensics. Blood, saliva, hair. Any of those things could prove that she had been somewhere, and that she had still been alive when she was. When the authorities found Thompson’s truck, they would find the dead woman, and they would collect samples. They would find her hair. Her dad would know they had been there.

“Go,” Rais told them. “Outside.” He held the door as the two girls, holding hands, left the bathroom. He followed, glancing around once more to ensure no one was watching. Then he took out Mr. Thompson’s heavy Smith & Wesson revolver and flipped it around in his hand. With a single, solid motion, he swung the gun’s handle downward and snapped the doorknob off the closed bathroom door.

“Blue car.” He gestured with his chin and put the gun away. The girls walked slowly toward a dark blue sedan parked a few spaces away from Thompson’s truck. Sara’s hand trembled in Maya’s—or it might have been Maya doing the trembling, she wasn’t sure.

Rais pulled the car out of the rest stop and back onto the interstate, but not south, the way they had been going before. Instead he doubled back and headed north. Maya understood what he was doing; when the authorities found Thompson’s truck they would assume he would continue south. They would be looking for him, and them, in the wrong places.

Maya yanked out a few strands of her hair and dropped them to the floor of the car. The psychopath who had kidnapped them was right about one thing; their fate was being determined by another power, in this case, him. And it was one that Maya could not yet fully comprehend.

They had only one chance now to avoid whatever fate was in store for them.

“Dad will come,” she whispered in her sister’s ear. “He’ll find us.”

She tried not to sound as uncertain as she felt.


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