James Campbell is the world's leading expert on crop viruses. He
discovers clay tablets from ancient Persia with a clue to the location
of a golden urn marked with the curse of a Greek goddess, part of
treasure seized by Alexander the Great during the fall of Babylon. His
discovery puts him dead center in the cross hairs of a conspiracy bent
on world domination. He is horribly murdered, along with two of his
The murders get the attention of Elizabeth Harker,
Director of a black ops intelligence unit called the Project. Nick
Carter is the Project team leader. He struggles with PTSD from his years
as a combat Marine and conflicting thoughts about his lover and
teammate, Selena Connor. Selena's been with the Project for less than a
year. She's having a hard time dealing with her feelings for Nick and
the mayhem that goes with her job.
Nick and Selena follow a bloody and explosive trail through
Greece, Bulgaria and America. They uncover a deadly plan of corporate
greed that will cause millions to die if it succeeds. Director Elizabeth
Harker must forge a dangerous alliance to try and stop the plot and
avoid certain war with Russia. All the while, a high-placed American
traitor does his best to sabotage the Project at every turn...and time
is running out.
What readers are saying...
I have read all the previous books in this series and this last one doesn't disappoint. The characters are great and the action almost constant. A real page turner!
I just finished the four books in this series and I loved them all! It is fast paced and really involves you with the characters. My regret is that I will have to wait till the end of 2012 to meet up with these characters again!! Strongly recommended read!!!
Nine ancient tablets from Persia reveal the secrets to a crop plague that is being weaponized for world domination in Alex Lukeman's thriller, Black Harvest. This fourth installment of his wildly entertaining PROJECT series keeps the momentum going while showing no signs of slowing down.
Mr. Lukeman gives any thriller writer, including Tom Clancy, a run for his money. If you want a political thriller where those who should be good guys sometimes aren't, and there's plenty of action, and a testing of morals as well as a couple of plot twists, Black Harvest will fill the bill nicely.
Sometimes it's better not to find what you're looking for.
The last gasp of a bitter New England winter clenched the campus at Dartmouth College in arctic cold, but inside Rauner Library it was warm and comfortable. James Campbell peered through a magnifying glass at what he'd found.
Nine reddish-brown clay tablets from ancient Persia, covered with writing. The marks were as clear and sharp as the day they had been pressed into the clay, almost 2400 years before. Campbell made a final note on his laptop computer and closed it down.
Campbell was a stout man in his 60s. He had gray hair thinning back in a widow's peak from a face creased with years of peering though microscopes at tiny life forms that heralded death and destruction. He'd seen nothing alive under his glass tonight. Only the tablets that he'd found buried in the archives. They held a clue to the fulfillment of a dream. Or a possible nightmare.
It could be the key, he thought.
Campbell made pictures of the tablets with his smart phone and composed two messages. A touch on the screen sent the emails and pictures on their way. He placed the phone and a copy of the writing in the case with his laptop. The tablets went back to their drawers in the restricted archives. He shrugged on his heavy coat, picked up the laptop and headed for the exit. It was late, but Campbell's status gave him access at any hour. A tired watchman rose from his chair and unlocked the door. There was a whiff of bourbon about him. Campbell stepped into the frigid night.
The ground crackled under his feet. The sky was a sea of brittle stars. Each breath of frozen air felt like the kiss of a razor, sharp and hurtful. He walked to his car, parked in the deserted lot. The windows were fogged. Odd, he thought, in this dry air.
The rented Volvo protested and started. Campbell waited for the engine to warm. He thought about the tablets.
Something sharp pressed across his throat. Adrenaline flooded his body.
"Don't move." In the rear view mirror, Campbell saw a dark face. The bones were narrow, the eyes hooded and dark.
"Don't speak unless I tell you. Understand?"
"You've been researching something. Answer, yes or no?"
Campbell swallowed. The blade made a thin pain against his Adam's apple.
"What have you found? I'll know if you lie. If you lie I'll cut off your ear. You believe me?"
"Yes." Something primal coursed down his spine, left over from an age when humans lived in caves. Fear.
"What have you found?"
"Records from Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire, after he entered Babylon. Accounting from the King's treasuries."
"No." Sweat started on his forehead.
Campbell screamed as his ear flew onto the floor. Blood poured down his neck. Before he could move the knife was back at his throat, wet with his own blood.
"You're not a historian. You lied. Don't do it again. Tell me what I want and you walk away."
The man hadn't hidden his face. Campbell knew he was going to die. He thought of his wife, ill at home. Sudden sadness brought tears to his eyes. What would she do?
Impotent thoughts of survival flooded his mind. Maybe he could twist away. Use the laptop or car keys as a weapon. Pull the knife from his throat before it cut him. Scream, open the door, roll away.
Pain seared the side of his head. Blood ran down under his collar. He felt dizzy. The voice from behind was quiet. "I'm going to ask one more time. What have you found?"
Stall him. Maybe I can get my arm up in time.
"I swear, just lists of stores, what was in the treasury before the conquest. Records demanded by Alexander." That part was true. "Nothing of importance. It has all been seen before."
"Do you have the tablets with you?"
"No, they're in the library."
"In the library."
White fire slashed across his throat, through flesh and arteries and bone. Blood spurted over the windshield. Campbell grasped his throat with both hands, trying to stem the flood, choking on his life. He thrashed and gurgled and fell forward and died.
The man got out of the car, ignoring the mess slumped over the steering wheel. He went around the back, opened the front passenger door, took the laptop from the seat and walked away into the frozen night.
Nick Carter was done sleeping for the night. He'd had the dream about the grenade again. Now it was five in the morning. He waited for the sun to come up. Already on the third cup of coffee. He sat at the kitchen counter in his apartment and wondered why the dream kept coming back. It wasn't like he didn't understand why he had it.
Nick was Director of Special Operations for the Project, a black ops intelligence unit that reported only to the President. The title was a fancy way of saying he got to plan missions and call the shots in the field. He didn't get to say anything about how or when people might shoot at him. The real Director of the Project was Elizabeth Harker.
Right before Harker recruited him into the Project, back when he was recovering from the grenade that almost killed him, the shrink told him the dream was a way for his mind to try and work out an irresolvable inner conflict. That helped about as much as telling him the reason he had the dream was because he had the dream. The shrink had another term for it: cognitive dissonance. What happened when reality rammed head-on into belief and won. Shrinks always had a term for something.
He knew goddamned well why he had the dream. Since he knew it, why did he keep having it? He'd been down this road before, playing out the loop in his head. It never got anywhere.
To hell with it.
He got up, took eggs from the refrigerator, bread from the pantry. He got a pan from the drawer, turned on the stove and dropped butter in it. He popped the bread in the toaster, scrambled the eggs and dumped them in the pan.
As he ate he thought about the dream again.
They come in fast over the ridge, the rotors chop-chop-chop overhead, toward a miserable village baking in bright Afghan sun. A rough dirt street runs down the middle between the houses.
He's first out and hits the street running, M4 up by his cheek, his Marines stringing out hard behind him. Houses line both sides of the street, the walls pocked with holes from some long forgotten firefight. On his left is the market, a makeshift collection of ramshackle bins and hanging cloth walls. The butcher’s stall is engulfed in flies.
He's in the market. He can smell the adrenaline sweat of his fear. He keeps away from the walls. A baby cries. The street is empty. Where are they?.
The rooftops fill with bearded men armed with AKs. The market stalls explode in a blizzard of splinters and plaster and rock fragmenting from the sides of the buildings.
A child runs toward him, screaming something about Allah. He has a grenade. Carter hesitates, it's a child. The boy is maybe ten years old. Maybe twelve. He cocks his arm back and throws as Nick shoots him. The boy's head explodes in a cloud of blood and bone. The grenade drifts toward him in slow motion...everything goes white...
Nick came back to the kitchen. He was sweating. He looked down at his hand, white knuckled around the coffee cup. His eggs were cold. The coffee was cold. He'd been gone, back in that village. That hadn't happened for awhile, not since Pakistan, right before Selena got shot.
That had been bad luck, running into a Taliban unit in a snowstorm after a bloody encounter in the high country of the Hindu Kush. Her armor had saved her. Barely. He'd carried her back to the LZ, hoping she'd be alive when he got there. She'd survived. That was what mattered.
Selena. He couldn't sort out his feelings about her and he was tired of thinking about it. He decided to go to work early and hit the gym. Before the traffic got bad.
The gym in the basement of Project headquarters smelled of sweat and stress and dry air from the heating system. Gyms weren't much fun anymore but his old wounds waited in the wings. If he didn't work out he'd lose his edge. The gym required no introspection. It was something he understood.
After an hour on the machines he began jumping rope. He caught himself in the big mirrors. Hard looking, six feet of tension, 200 pounds. Looking in the mirror he thought that if he didn't know who he was he might have scared himself. He wasn't going to win any awards for beauty, that was for sure.
He looked away from the mirror. His sweats were dark, he'd built up a good burn. His back was sore, but nothing he couldn't handle. No need to think about anything except the simple rhythm of his body, the smooth blurring of the rope.
It was good not to think.
Selena Connor came in. She watched Nick for a moment. A big, tough man. Not pretty, not ugly. Eyes that were gray with an odd fleck of gold. His face was tight with concentration. The scar on his left ear was red. It always got that way when he exercised. It got that way in the bedroom, too. She set her gym bag down on a bench and began stretching. He watched her as the rope circled in a figure eight around him.
"Hey," she said.
"Hey yourself. Almost done." He stepped up his pace. Selena looked good, even in dark blue sweats. Nick envied the athletic grace she brought to every movement. She finished her warm up and came over. A wisp of red blond hair fell across her forehead. Her violet eyes held a hint of mischief. Nick slowed and stopped.
She looked up at him. "Want to learn a few tricks? Brush up a little?"
Nick caught the challenge in her tone. He was good at unarmed combat, but Selena was way out of his class.
"If you think you can handle it."
"Me? Or you?"
Nick had sixty pounds and two inches on her. The sixth or seventh time Selena brought him to the mat, the thought crossed his mind he was getting a little old for this kind of brushing up. He ached all over from the beating he was getting.
"Okay, I give up. That's enough."
"You don't want to practice the wrist locks again?"
"I practice anymore, I won't have a wrist left to practice with."
She smiled. The corners of her mouth crinkled at the corners. It was a good smile. She picked up a towel, dabbed at her face. She'd hardly worked up a sweat.
"You're getting better. You almost had me once." The phone in her bag signaled a message. She went over to the bench, took out the phone and listened. After a minute she hung up and put the phone back in the bag.
"That was a friend of mine over at Georgetown, Kevin McCullough. He wants me to translate some pictures of cuneiform tablets."
Selena had a world reputation in ancient languages. Not many people could recite Beowulf in Anglo-Saxon. Not many would want to. Selena wasn't like most people.
"It figures you read Cuneiform. Any good books back then?"
"No books but good stories. Right up your alley. You might like them, they're full of blood and murder." She picked up the bag. "I'm going over there as soon as I shower. Want to come along?"
"To the shower?"
"Smart ass. No, to Georgetown."
"Sure. Harker will call if she wants us."
They took Selena's Mercedes down the Memorial Parkway, crossed the Key Bridge into Washington and drove to Georgetown University. They parked near Healy Hall, where Selena's friend has his office.
The hall would have looked right at home in London during the days of empire. It was massive, five stories high, built from blocks of gray stone. It had turrets and two large towers. Long rows of windows fronted the structure.
"Some building." Carter looked up at the central tower. He assumed it had bells. "Quasimodo would like it here."
"It does have a heavy feeling, doesn't it?"
"The turrets are a nice touch. Gives it that contemporary look."
McCullough's office was on the fourth floor. Nick could see something was wrong as soon as they went in. Professor McCullough was in his late fifties or early sixties. He was short, about five nine, with sparse red hair and a soft, pale face. He wore a soft brown jacket of fine wool. Watery blue eyes peered at them through bifocals.
"Selena, thank you for coming."
"Hello, Kevin. This is Nick Carter. We work together."
McCullough's palm was moist when Nick shook hands. The room was stuffy and hot. A large window looked out from the front of the building. It was closed. Papers were everywhere, in files, in boxes. A floor to ceiling bookshelf took up one wall, struggling with the weight of too many books. The room smelled of dust and dry paper. Looking at the chaos was enough to make Nick's eyes hurt. McCullough gestured at two battered chairs.
He took the chair behind his desk and gathered himself.
"Selena. The police called me." He twisted his fingers together.
"What's the matter, Kevin?"
"The pictures I want you to look at were sent by a friend, Jim Campbell. He was murdered last night. After he sent the pictures. Well, of course it was after. The police are calling his colleagues."
Selena and Nick glanced at each other.
"Kevin, I'm sorry."
"Jim was a good friend. We were in the same field."
"What is your field, Professor?" Nick scratched his ear.
"Microbiology. I specialize in crop viruses. Jim was one of the world's leading authorities. He was researching a collection of artifacts at Dartmouth College." He shook his head. "I can't get it through my head that someone killed him. Why would anyone want to do that?"
"What was he researching?" Selena asked.
"Cuneiform tablets found in Iraq. He was looking for clues to ancient famines, crop failures. Some of those killed hundreds of thousands of people. Jim worked for CDC in Atlanta. He was quite brilliant. He spent several years studying ancient languages just so he could work directly from the old sources."
Selena nodded. "I can understand that. Was there a message with the pictures?"
"Well, yes, there was. It's very odd. Jim said he was on the trail of something. He said I should have the writing translated and I should be careful."
"Why would he say that?"
"I haven't any idea. That's why I called you, to find out what's on the tablets. Right after that I heard from the police." McCullough was agitated.
"May I see the pictures?"
"I printed them for you." McCullough fumbled through papers on his desk and handed them to her. They were in black and white on cheap copy paper. Nick glanced over. The writing reminded him of ordered rows of chicken tracks.
She looked at the first page. "This style is from the fourth century BCE."
"That would correspond to Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire."
"I'd need time for an accurate translation, but this looks like a fragment from one of the epic poems." She turned a page. "This part is different. It's from the treasury of Darius III in Babylon."
She traced the marks with her finger. "It's an accounting or inventory. Darius had an enormous treasure. Alexander used it to pay his troops."
"What would it be worth today?" Nick was curious.
"A lot." She turned a page. "Let's see...100,000 talents of gold and silver."
"What's a talent?"
"It's how they measured coins. By volume. A talent is around 25 liters."
She turned another page. "Whoever wrote this was very detailed. This is interesting. A golden container or urn, two cubits high, sealed, graven with a black horse and an inscription saying the urn contains the Curse of Demeter Erinys."
Nick opened his mouth to ask, but Selena beat him to it.
"A cubit is about eighteen inches."
"That's not what I was going to ask. Who's Demeter?"
"Demeter is the Greek goddess of the harvest."
She came to the last page. "I need to study this, but it looks like Alexander sent the urn and treasure off to Greece with someone. I wonder if any of it still exists?"
"Two and a half million liters of gold and silver and a big gold pot?" Nick looked at her. "If it did and Campbell knew something about it, people would kill for that."
McCullough seemed uncomfortable. A light knocking interrupted them. A student opened the door.
"Excuse me, Professor. This just came for you." He held an express delivery package in his hand.
"Thank you, William." McCullough took the package and placed it with the clutter on his desk.
"Selena, could you take this copy and translate it for me? Write it down?"
"I'd be happy to." She put the papers in her jacket pocket. McCullough saw the Glock in its quick draw holster under her tailored jacket.
"You carry a gun?" He seemed shocked.
"I'm a kind of federal agent now, Kevin. I translate things for the government. They insist I wear it. I'm not sure I'd know what to do with it."
Nick kept a straight face.
"Well." McCullough stood. "I have to get ready for my afternoon lecture. It's good to see you."
"I'll get the translation done in a day or two. We'll have coffee." She paused. "Kevin, it's probably a good idea not to mention this. Nick's right. It might have something to do with why your friend was murdered."
"Yes. All right. Goodbye, Mr. Carter."
Nick glanced back as they left. McCullough seemed dazed, pushing papers around on his desk, looking for his lecture notes.
They came out of Healy Hall and stopped by a large fountain. The sky was clear and blue, good weather after days of gray skies and drizzle.
"McCullough didn't like it when I told him someone might kill for that treasure."
"He's an academic, Nick."
"How does he get anything done in that mess up there?"
Selena was about to say something when the sky detonated in a thunderclap over their heads. The blast knocked them to the ground. The sound rolled away toward the Potomac. Debris rained on the lawns and parking lots and parked cars, rock and smoldering wood and bits of masonry. A flurry of paper drifted down from above.
"Jesus." Nick stood, helped Selena to her feet. Her knee was scraped and bleeding. Screams and shouts came from the building. They looked up.
A large part of the outer wall on the fourth floor was gone. Black smoke poured through the hole. Yellow and orange tongues of flame flickered in the darkness.
"That's where Kevin's office is. Right there."
"Not any more." He sniffed the air. "Smell that? That's an odor tag for Semtex. The package he just got was a bomb."
"Maybe the message he told us about. Someone killed his friend and now they've killed him. What else could it be?"
She felt her jacket pocket and the paper copy of the tablets. "We could have been there when it went off."
"Yeah, but we weren't."
She looked stricken. "Nick, Kevin had a wife and three grown kids. He was a sweet man. I can't believe this. What's so damned important about those tablets someone would want to kill him?"
"I guess we'll find out when you translate them. I'm sorry about your friend."
Selena looked up at the smoke pouring out of the fourth floor. People were streaming out of the building. Sirens sounded in the distance.
"What now?" she said.
"We go back to the Project before the cops get here."
"Shouldn't we tell them about that package?"
"They don't need us to figure it out. We need to talk with Harker."
They got into Selena's Mercedes. A man in a dented white pickup parked two rows away watched them leave. He noted the time and reached for his cell phone.
Project Director Elizabeth Harker was a small woman. She always dressed in black and white. Today she wore an all black linen suit with a white scarf tie at her throat. The suit matched her raven black hair. Her hair was artfully cut to frame the fine bones of her face. Her emerald green eyes were wide, cat-like. She had milk-white skin, small ears and a slim figure, like an elf or fairy sprite from a Shakespearean tale. Her looks tended to make self-important people dismiss her. It was a mistake they didn't make twice. Harker was no fairy sprite.
Harker's desk was wide and clean. She had a green desk blotter with leather corners. She had an antique ink stand and a silver pen that had belonged to FDR. There was a picture of the twin towers on 9/11 in a silver frame. A reminder.
Stephanie Willits sat between Nick and Selena. She had a wide, attractive face and dark eyes. This morning she'd chosen a red dress and white blouse and dangly gold earrings. There were three gold bracelets on her left wrist. Steph was responsible for all computer resources at the Project. She talked to her computers as if they were her family and could make the big Crays on the floor below do things no one else thought possible.
Nick couldn't put his finger on it, but she seemed different. She'd done something to her hair, but that wasn't it. She'd lightened up since Elizabeth had returned, but that wasn't it either. She seemed more alive. Even happy.
Harker played with her pen. "Selena, do you think McCullough was murdered because of the message from his friend?"
"It seems like too much of a coincidence."
"I wonder if the bomb was meant for you and Nick?"
Nick rubbed the scar on his left ear. A Chinese bullet had taken off the earlobe the first day he'd met Selena. Sometimes it burned like fire when everything was about to go bad. This time it was only an itch.
"It wasn't for us. No one knew we were going there. Besides, there are easier ways to take us out than blowing up a university. That bomb was Semtex, someone with serious resources like a terrorist group."
"You're sure it was Semtex."
"Steph, see if you can find out what the police in New Hampshire know about the murder up there."
"I'll do it now." She got up and left.
"I wouldn't bet on the local cops finding much," Nick said. "Whoever sent that bomb knew what they were doing. If they killed Campbell they won't have left clues."
"Why would someone target these men? Selena, I'd like a full translation on those notes McCullough gave you."
"I'll have it done later today."
Harker toyed with her pen and set it down. Picked it up again. Began tapping. Thinking. Carter watched her.
"The Bureau will be on it because of the bombing," she said.
"Do we want to get involved with them?"
"Not if we can help it. You know what it's like, they try to control everything. They're good at what they do, I'll give them that. If they get a lead, I'll take it. They don't know about you and Selena being on the scene. They won't have any reason to think it's more than a routine inquiry."
Stephanie came back into the room.
"That was quick. What have you got?"
"I talked with the chief up there. It's a small department. They don't have much. McCullough's friend worked for CDC down in Atlanta. The killer cut off an ear before he cut Campbell's throat."
"Only one reason to do that." Carter absently felt his ear. It was still attached to his head. "Torture. They wanted something from him."
"Cash and credit cards still in his wallet." Stephanie sat down. "His laptop is missing. No phone, either. Someone broke into the library where Campbell was working and got into the restricted archives. No one knows if anything is missing yet."
"No night watchman?"
"He drinks. He was asleep."
"Lucky for him, or he'd probably be dead. I think we can guess what's missing."
"The tablets." Harker thought for a moment. "Stephanie, bring up Campbell's phone logs. Let's see if he called anyone else. Maybe he sent that message to more than one person."
Steph went to a computer console off to the side of Harker's desk. The console fed into the big Crays downstairs. The Crays linked to the NSA database. Most messages sent over a cell phone or digital line were somewhere in that database. For sure all domestic messages. Campbell's calls would be there. Steph entered a string of commands.
"Got him. Several calls to Atlanta in the days before he was killed. Two a day to his home number. One long call to someone named Arnold Weinstein at CDC the day before he was killed. On the night of his murder, two calls. One to Kevin McCullough. Another to Weinstein. Those calls are back to back. Sent at 10:09 in the evening."
She began entering commands on her keyboard. "I'm checking on Weinstein now."
Nick tugged on his ear. "We need to talk with him."
"You'll need a hell of a connection." Steph stared at her monitor.
"What do you mean?"
"Weinstein got in his car to go to work this morning. It blew up when he turned on the ignition."
"A car bomb? Steph, can you retrieve the message from Campbell to Weinstein? Put it on the speakers."
"It will take a minute. Hold on." They waited. "All set."
They heard Campbell's voice. A voice from the grave.
"Arnold, it's James."
"Jim. Enjoying the weather up there? It was 78 here today."
"Arnie, I've got something." Campbell sounded excited.
"I've been looking at records from Persia and I found something from the time of Alexander the Great. There was a devastating crop failure in Persia right after Xerxes the First returned from Greece. The famine that followed almost brought down his empire. These tablets I've been looking at might be a clue to the cause."
"Was there a draught?"
"That's what I thought at first. But water wasn't the problem. I think it was an unknown variant of Fusarium graminearum."
"Ah. That would do it."
"It's possible a store of Fusarium spores from then may have survived."
"You can't be serious." Weinstein sounded shocked.
"I am. One of the tablets describes a sealed vessel, an urn of gold. It's supposed to contain the curse of a goddess."
"Oh, come on, Jim. A curse?"
"Not a spell, something real. Xerxes brought it back with him from Greece around 490 BCE. I think it had spores in it, maybe from infected grains. It may even have been the cause of the famine. The Greeks could have isolated the cause without really understanding how it worked. They could have seen it as something to use against their enemies. The myth linked with the urn centers on the goddess of the harvest."
"You mean Demeter?"
"Yes. The urn was kept in the royal treasury. It was still there when Alexander defeated Darius III."
"What happened to it?"
"Alexander sent it back to Greece, along with the treasure."
"Then it's gone."
"What if it isn't? What if we could find it? This could be what the Pentagon has been asking for. If it is, I don't want to give it to them."
In Harker's office, they heard Weinstein sigh.
"Jim, this isn't a secured line."
"I don't give a damn. I didn't get into this field to turn science into a way to kill more people."
"If we can find this urn and it's what I think it is, we might come up with a way to wipe out Fusarium once and for all. Think of it, Arnie! New genetic material, uncontaminated. We have nothing that old to work with."
"It might not be different."
"No. But if it is..."
"How do you propose to find it? If it exists?"
"I think I know how, or at least how to begin."
"When are you coming back?"
"Jim. Be careful."
"They wouldn't dare touch me, Arnie. You either. They need us. See you tomorrow."
The call ended.
"What's Fusarium whatever?" Nick asked.
"Let's find out." Steph's fingers moved over the keyboard. A picture came up. "It's a crop blight. Caused a lot of problems in the past. Spreads quickly, hard to stop, kills grains like wheat and barley. Reproduces with spores. Nasty stuff."
Elizabeth studied the picture on the screen. A field of wheat, rotten, black, spoiled.
"Campbell and Weinstein were working on something for the Pentagon and Campbell wasn't happy about it. They were virologists. It must be some kind of bio-weapon." She leaned back in her chair. "Campbell didn't seem to think he was in any real danger."
"Guess he was wrong about that," Nick said.