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Loyalty Test by Paul Coulter

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Genre/Category: Crime, Thriller, Mystery
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Loyalty Test by Paul Coulter
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Synopsis

Loyalty Test sweeps from a disastrous school bombing in Islamabad, to a murderous Russian gang smuggling plutonium, to war-torn South Sudan, to the brothels and drug labs of a perilously corrupt Myanmar, to the rescue of girls forced into prostitution in Ankara, to lethal encounters in Azerbaidzhan, Russia, and Kazakhstan, to the fundamentalist dominated alleys of Karachi, to the U.S. where terrorist strikes devastate Wall Street and Atlanta's CDC.

Throughout, each major character is gripped by divided loyalties. A terrorist faces the conflict of loyalty toward the country of his birth v. the country of his heritage. Genna Bowen must decide between passion for the man of her dreams v. her need to prevent this man from doing a terrible thing. President Yates balances his duty to protect the United States v. his desire to protect a long held secret. Zack Bowen has little trouble choosing between love for his only child v. duty to the government he's long served.


Excerpt:

Zack Bowen woke in Islamabad with unaccustomed panic.  It was late. It was very late. The intense light coming from outside was blinding. He was forced to close one eye.  The radio alarm read 10:02 in big, red numbers. Now Zack remembered. He’d reset it from his usual 6:00 when dawn still found him scrambling to deal with bad news from Moscow.

No, Zack realized as his mind cleared into full awareness. Urgent as last night’s crisis loomed, it wasn’t why adrenalin made it feel like angry bees were underneath his skin. Now as the English language service repeated the report, Zack bolted out of bed.

Armed men were barricaded inside the American School. They held 300 kids and teachers. In addition to assault rifles and grenades, they’d brought numerous satchels of explosives. There were eight known deaths already, a father, a teacher, and six guards. The assault began three hours earlier, while Zack slept like a stone.

He’d needed to work so late because of Lubov’s message. 90kg Pamir tonig, were the words that came just after midnight. They’d kept Zack hurtling for the next five hours. He’d texted Lubov with the number of his secure land line, but there was no response.  No answer to an encrypted e-mail, either.

He’d called in carefully stashed favors to get the private number at Lubov’s dacha.  There’d been no answer on this line, either.  He’d phoned Grigori Artsev, an old drinking buddy now high up in the Moscow police.  Forty minutes later, Artsev confirmed that they’d found Lubov at his dacha, his body like a sieve.

Lubov’s core temperature suggested he’d been dead from approximately the time his words appeared on Zack’s cell phone. The assassins must have burst into Lubov’s dacha even as he’d tapped the warning. Zack pictured Lubov hitting the send button just before they shot him. Across a sheen of clotting blood, now his glazed eyes stared at the cracked glass of a picture frame.  His wife Lyudmila and his two plump daughters smiled back.

Though Zack had alerted the entire chain of command, he didn’t have enough time or information to stop this shipment. Not that he worked anti- proliferation any more. But no one wanted Russian plutonium leaking out to rogue nations and terrorists.

A bare five hours later, Zack sped cross-town through light traffic.

Lubov’s warning couldn’t have been more urgent, but now it seemed unimportant compared to the hostage crisis here. Thank God Genna’s grown, was all that Zack could think. Only seven years ago, she would have been inside the school.

The terrorists had demanded complete American withdrawal from both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Also immediate release for all “freedom fighters” imprisoned at Guantanamo, U.S. prisons, the Navy brig at Charleston, South Carolina, and Homeland Security’s secret facility in Alaska. When he’d reached his assistant, Zack learned there was a list of prisoners who must be given safe transport, including sixteen men the U.S. had never acknowledged holding. It was ninety minutes into the three hours granted to accomplish this.

Though Zack’s own daughter was safe, doing relief work in Africa, thank God, several close friends from the embassy had children among the captives. Having spent the last twenty-six years working abroad in dangerous locations, Zack knew exactly how they felt. His own work here concerned rural development, not anti-terrorism, but the least he could do was go stand with the frantic parents.

As he drove, Zack found news video on his phone.  It showed the little girl who’d been sent out with the list. A caption said she was the Turkish ambassador’s daughter. Though dressed in western clothing and too young to wear a scarf, they must have learned she was Islamic. Zack assumed that’s why they’d spared her life.

To reach the perimeter set up by a Marine brigade, she’d had to run a >weaving path around six bodies sprawled on the school’s front drive. These were private guards, reported the announcer. A spokesman for the contractor said there were always ten on duty, four stationed inside the building. Though the terrorists’ statement hadn’t mentioned them, the little girl reported that these other guards, along with Assistant Principal Cooper and Kelly Deauville’s father, were also dead.

The terrorists had stormed the building first thing in the morning, quickly overwhelming the guards. They’d shot Mr. Cooper in the head when he’d tried to bar a door against them. Mr. Deauville had died right in front of Kelly after grabbing a gun that lay next to one of the dead guards. Then they’d herded everyone into the gym by firing their weapons at the ceiling.  Some of the older kids had tried to break windows and escape, but the terrorists hauled them back inside.

It seemed a well planned operation. According to the Turkish ambassador’s daughter, there’d been twelve gunmen when the kids and teachers were collected in the gym. She was sure of the number, because she’d counted on her fingers. They all had assault rifles, which she recognized as AK47s because her father’s men used the same weapons. They’d left a pair of large, wheeled suitcases beneath each of the gym’s six basketball hoops, with wires strung between them.  Their leader sat for hours on the stage, cradling the detonator between his palms. He didn’t let them use the water fountains or the toilets. But as it grew extremely hot, he let them strip down to their underwear.

Obviously, they’d modeled their assault on the Chechen raid against an elementary school in Beslan, Russia.  The only difference was they hadn’t chosen the first day of school, so there weren’t nearly as many parents and younger siblings present. Thank heaven for small favors, thought Zack. He’d met a Russian officer who’d been at Beslan. The greatest horror was when the terrorists forced mothers to choose between leaving the school with their babies or staying with their older children.