A fanatical terrorist has visions of the Islamic Mahdi
commanding him to begin the Apocalypse and bring about the End of Days. An
ancient brotherhood of assassins hidden for centuries reappears to murder and
ignite the fires of war. A truck carrying a terrible weapon leaves Sudan for
the lawless mountains of Algeria and an unknown destination.
Director Elizabeth Harker of the Project sends Nick Carter and Selena Connor to the burning wastelands of Western
Africa, the back streets of San Diego and the bitter mountains of the Hindu
Kush, before a final confrontation that will decide the future of Western
What readers are saying...
I'm really enjoying The Project Series. Lots of national and international covert action. I wish we had a team like this watching out for us.
This was a great book and very well written. I will definitely be reading the rest of "THE PROJECT" series.
Enjoyed very much. I like this author and his style. He has good intrigue and story line, characters are developed well.
I have now read all three books and anxiously await the fourth. I have put him on my author "watch list" for forthcoming books. In my opinion, he ranks with Rollins, Silva, Berry and Flynn, other authors on my "watch list".
THE SEVENTH PILLAR by Alex Lukeman is an odds on winner for an outstanding series or as a stand alone.
THE SEVENTH PILLAR
Twelve stood unseen and motionless in a world of soundless gray. Thick London fog cloaked him, clung to him like a whisper from the grave. The fog smelled of old, unpleasant things, of the polluted waters of the Thames not far away.
His body hummed with energy. Every bead of moisture on his skin was a caress of anticipation, every sound was amplified ten fold. He sensed footsteps coming. A man dressed in a dark topcoat and hat emerged wraith-like from the gray curtain, swinging an umbrella at his side. Two minders walked behind him, as always. This man was never alone.
The assassin drew an ancient dagger from his sleeve, stepped out of the mists and thrust the blade deep into the notch at the base of his target's skull. He turned with a high kick and snapped the neck of the first guard. A quick blow to the throat sent the other to his knees, a dead man trying to breathe.
Twelve wiped his dagger clean on the expensive coat. He took a small object from his pocket and placed it on the body. It bore a curious design.
The sign pointed the way but led nowhere. It would confuse those who would come. Confusion was good.
The assassin melted back into the silent fog.
If Nicholas Carter needed a reminder of how much things had changed in the past weeks he only had to look at his phone. It was black and shiny and had a lot of buttons. There were buttons for the White House, the Seventh Floor at Langley, the Director of National Intelligence, the Joint Chiefs, NSA, DIA and a half dozen more he hadn't figured out yet.
At least it isn't red, he thought.
The phone came with his new job as Co-Director of the Project, along with a new office. The office came with a big flat screen monitor on the wall, brown leather chairs and a thick carpet. There was an impressive desk with an encrypted computer linked to the Cray mainframes downstairs. There were two windows. One looked out at the hall. One let him see across a common work area into Stephanie Willits' office. He had to go down the hall to see the outside world.
Stephanie ran the Project on a day to day basis. Nick ran the field operations, in charge of tactics and strategy and getting in and out of places no sane person would ever want to go. Together the two of them reviewed intelligence briefs sent from the big three letter agencies to the President. Sometimes they pointed out that the Emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. It made them unpopular in the US intelligence community.
Carter got up and poured a cup of dark coffee from a gleaming chrome machine. He went back to the desk and a manila packet Steph had handed to him when he'd come in, without comment. No comment meant his day was probably about to get complicated.
He sipped the coffee and opened the packet. Inside were reports and pictures. The first picture showed a man lying on a wet sidewalk. His eyes were open and expressionless, blue. There was blood under his head.
Carter set the photo aside and began reading. Scotland Yard, MI-5, CIA. The dead man was Sir Edward Hillary-Smythe, the British Foreign Secretary. A powerful man, a hawk, a strong advocate for harsh sanctions on Iran and military action against the Tehran regime if needed.
The only thing worse would have been the assassination of the Queen or the Prime Minister. Sir Edward had been a popular and controversial figure.
Stephanie came into his office. "Ten to one we hear from Rice before noon."
James Rice, President of the United States. An election was coming up. Not even Christmas yet, and the political rhetoric had already turned brutal.
"No bet, Steph. But it's a British mess. MI-5 is pretty good."
"They weren't good enough to stop him from getting killed."
"What was he doing walking in the fog?"
"Sir Edward liked his evening constitutionals."
"Nobody heard anything?"
"Have you ever been in London in really heavy fog?" Stephanie sat down in one of the brown leather chairs. "You wouldn't hear a bomb go off two blocks away. Besides, the killer used a knife. No noise. He took out two MI-5 agents at the same time."
"Yes. In and out, terminate, no muss."
"Anyone have an idea who's behind it? Anyone claim responsibility?"
"No and no."
Steph was in her mid thirties. Her dark hair was cut half way to her shoulders. She favored long gold earrings and gold bracelets on her left wrist. She had full lips and wide cheekbones and dark shadows under dark eyes.
Looking at her, you might think of cocoa and cookies and a warm bed on a cold night, think of a woman who probably drove a van to the soccer field a few times a week. You would be wrong. Steph could place thirteen rounds in the black from a hundred feet in under thirty seconds. She was a genius with computers. She could hack any firewall in the world. She'd been married and divorced and now lived alone in her Washington condo. With Nick, Stephanie ran one of the most secretive counter-terrorism units in the world. Carter had no idea what she did when she went home. He didn't need to know. He trusted her, and that was enough.
Carter looked at the photo of the dead man and felt a headache starting. He picked up another picture from the packet, of an object inscribed with an odd design.
"The killer left it on the body."
"Must be. We need to know what it means."
"It's some kind of writing. Let's get Selena to take a look."
"She's down in the computer room. I'll page her."
Selena's gift for languages was world class. If anyone could figure out the writing, it would be her.
A few minutes later Nick watched her come through the door. The way she moved reminded him of a cross between a ballet dancer and a sleek jungle cat, all grace and feral beauty. She was five-ten, shorter than Nick. She had high cheekbones and a natural beauty mark over her lip. Her eyes were an unusual violet color. Her hair was reddish blond.
She wore a tailored gray suit and a lavender blouse that picked up the color of her eyes. She had a slim gold watch on her left wrist and simple earrings. Not everyone could make a Glock .40 in a quick draw holster look like a fashion accessory, but Selena pulled it off.
The contrast between them was clear to anyone. No one would call Nick handsome. Hard, perhaps, rugged. Tense, with gray eyes that never stopped moving. Women would say not bad looking, maybe a little scary, someone to keep an eye on. But not handsome. Selena was another story. She came close to beautiful.
"What's up?" She sat down next to Stephanie.
"Someone killed the British Foreign Secretary this morning and left this. Can you make anything of it?"
Nick handed the picture across.
She studied the photo. "It says 'Muhammad and Ali'. The writing is Arabic. It's an ambigram, a calligraphic mirror image with multiple meanings."
"What's this one about?"
"This is a Shia ambigram. One meaning is that Ali is the rightful successor to Muhammad, the one appointed by Muhammad and God to lead the Muslim community."
"Ali was Muhammad 's cousin. When Muhammad died, Ali claimed rightful succession by divine decree. Sunni Muslims say that Abu Bakr was the lawful successor. The Shias say Abu Bakr was an opportunist who seized power. Islam has been fighting about it ever since."
She frowned at the picture.
"I've seen this before, I just can't remember where. It'll come to me."
Carter tugged on his ear. "You think of Shia Islam and terrorism, you think of Tehran. Sir Edward was a firebrand when it came to Iran. Maybe the Iranians are behind this."
"That's jumping to conclusions." Selena smoothed a wrinkle on her skirt. "I wonder why he was killed?"
"We figure out who did it, we'll know why."
He changed the subject. "Steph, you hear from Ronnie and Lamont yet?"
"Two hours ago. So far there's only routine activity. They should update any time now."
Ronnie Peete and Lamont Cameron sat in a battered blue Toyota pickup under a relentless African sun. The temperature was over a hundred, the door handles hot enough to burn. The heat didn't seem to bother Ronnie. Sweat ran down Lamont's brown face, followed the ridge of scar tissue across his eye and nose, dropped onto his sand colored robe. He looked over at his partner.
"How come you don't sweat?"
"This isn't hot. You ought to try a sweat lodge sometime. That's hot."
Ronnie was Navajo, raised on the reservation before he'd joined the Corps. He'd been Recon, in the same unit as Nick.
"A sweat ceremony might last three days," he said. " 'Course we could go outside and cool off once in a while."
"You got a ceremony for shade?"
Lamont lifted his binoculars. "Something's happening."
He focused on a low cement structure two stories high, flat roofed, surrounded by a fence topped with razor wire. It was whitewashed and dirty and uninspired. Lamont passed the binoculars over.
"They're loading something onto the truck."
The truck had shown up yesterday, along with a man with a full white beard and a green turban surrounded by armed guards. Lamont had taken three quick photos and sent them on to Stephanie. The truck was like ten thousand other trucks in Africa, used for hauling everything from goats to troops. There were no markings on it. It had Sudanese plates. Since they were right outside Khartoum, that wasn't surprising.
Five bearded men with AK 47s stood by, looking tense. Two others lifted an olive drab metal container about the size of a footlocker up to someone inside the truck. Two white Toyota pickups mounted with belt fed Degtyaryov machine guns waited nearby. The Russian guns were popular in this part of the world.
The building was similar to a chemical factory bombed by the US a few years back. That one been had been making VX, a lethal nerve gas refined from pesticides. The bombed out ruins were now a prime tourist attraction in Khartoum.
Maybe someone was making VX again. It was why Ronnie and Lamont baked under the African sun. To find out if they were.
"They're being pretty careful with that box. Like it's made out of eggshells." Ronnie adjusted the binoculars. A gleam of sunlight reflected from the lenses and bounced against the windshield. Ronnie swore under his breath. Someone pointed their way. There was sudden activity by the pickups.
"Oh, oh. We've been spotted. Time to boogie."
Lamont started the engine. He turned onto the road to Khartoum and floored it. Ronnie looked back and saw the armed pickups pull out after them.
The Toyota sped into the outskirts of Khartoum. The trucks behind closed and the gunners opened fire. At the sound of the guns people ran for cover and cleared the wide street. Everyone in Sudan knew that sound.
Lamont and Ronnie hunched down. The rear window exploded in a shower of glass. Bullets starred the windshield with holes, kicked up of dirt around them, pocked the whitewashed walls of the houses. The rounds rang off the roof of the cab. Inside, it sounded like hammers hitting steel.
There was a grenade launcher in the bed of the truck under a canvas tarp. It didn't do them any good back there.
Ronnie flung open his door. "I'm going for the launcher."
He climbed outside and grabbed the frame where the rear window had been shot away. Broken shards of glass ripped his hand. He swore, got a leg over the edge and rolled down into the truck bed. He crawled to the launcher and flung off the tarp. It sailed away into the air and landed in the roadway behind. He opened the case, took out the long tube and loaded a round.
One of the gunners found the rear tires. They blew out in flat, loud explosions and instantly shredded into twisted steel and chunks of rubber. Lamont fought for control of the bouncing truck. Ronnie steadied himself, got to one knee, fired, watched the trail of smoke head away. He felt the brief kiss of rounds passing by before they struck the cab. Lamont cried out. The first of the pursuing trucks burst into an orange ball of flame.
The second vehicle came past the burning wreckage. The heavy, distinctive sound of the Russian gun echoed from the buildings lining the street. Ronnie's next round detonated as it went through the windshield. The truck lifted, flipped onto its side and exploded.
Their pickup drifted sideways into a building and ground along the wall until it stopped. Ronnie leapt from the bed, opened the door and pulled Lamont out from behind the wheel. Armor had stopped two rounds in his back. A third had hit his arm. Blood soaked his robe.
Lamont's brown face had turned the color of light coffee, blanched with pain. He held his wounded arm against his body.
A wisp of flame snaked out under the hood of their truck.
With the shooting over, people began to come out of the houses and shops. Lamont had Ethiopian coffee skin and blue eyes. Ronnie had his Navajo coloring and looks. They both wore skull caps and robes and realistic beards. They wouldn't pass as Sudanese, but no one would figure them for Americans. Ronnie had his pistol out to discourage anyone from asking questions. No one did.
They hurried down the street and into a maze of alleys and narrow paths running between the houses. Behind them their truck turned into a blazing torch, sending a column of black smoke into the cloudless sky.
Ronnie stopped in a deserted alley. A narrow beam of sunlight shone down between dust colored walls. He cut open Lamont's sleeve. Shattered bone showed above the elbow, where the bullet had tumbled through.
"How bad?" Lamont's voice was hoarse with pain.
"It's fucked up. I gotta stop the bleeding. This will hurt." Ronnie cut strips from his robe and bound the wound. He improvised a sling. Lamont gritted his teeth.
Ronnie watched the entrance to the alley and punched a button on his phone. The call could be intercepted, but no one could understand it without the right chip on the other end.
There was a brief delay as the call routed through the satellites. Stephanie answered. "Yes, Ronnie."
"We have a problem. Two trucks came after us. We took them out, but our vehicle is toast. Lamont took a bad hit. I'm cut up a little." He looked down at his bloody hand. "Get us out of here. Lamont needs a hospital, now."
"Go to ground. We'll get you out."
"They loaded something onto a deuce and a half. We put a bug on the truck last night."
"We'll track them. Call when you're safe."
"Roger that." Ronnie put the phone away.
The following day Selena, Nick and Stephanie met in Steph's office. Ronnie and Lamont were safe on a US Navy carrier two hundred miles off shore. The cost of extraction from Khartoum was a bill owed to CIA. The Project didn't have assets on the ground all over the world. Langley did. To Nick's surprise, they'd cooperated. Carter was relieved his team was safe, but he knew Langley would call for payback.
There was a new, bad development.
Stephanie briefed them. "Senator Randolph has been murdered. There were three Secret Service agents with him. They're dead too. Also his wife and his dog. They found a disc on the body, like the one in London. The President called and he wants answers."
Randolph had been a lock to run against President Rice in the upcoming election. He had favored pre-emptive military intervention to stop Iran or anyone else from obtaining nuclear weapons. Someone had just assassinated the man who might have been the next President of the United States.
Nick said what they all knew. "Someone is bound to make the Shia connection with that symbol. Randolph wanted heavy sanctions against Tehran. Like the Brit Secretary. Everyone's going to think Iran is behind these murders."
"Maybe they are behind it." Stephanie tapped her fingers on her leg.
"It doesn't make sense, Steph. Why would the Iranians announce their involvement? It's not their style."
"Public perception is going to drive things. It's politics, you know that. Everyone looks for someone to blame. This could start a war if anyone finds a direct link."
"I don't think it's Tehran," Selena said. " She held up the picture of the disc. "I remembered where I'd seen this. It's hard to believe we're looking at it now."
"'What do you mean?" Carter waited.
"This was the sign of a secret order called the Hashishin. That's where the word 'assassin' comes from. They were a Shia sect that disappeared seven hundred years ago."
"Are those the guys who smoked hashish and thought they were in Paradise?"
"Don't tell me." Nick said. "They came out of Iran."
"That's right. Only it was Persia then. They had a fortress in northwestern Iran, at a place called Alamut. It's still there. It was conquered by the Mongols in the thirteenth century."
"What happened to them? You said they disappeared."
"They believed in a succession of hidden Imams and went into something called dissimulation. Into hiding, until their Imams would reveal them again. That's not supposed to happen until there's a divine sign."
"What kind of sign?"
"Your guess is as good as mine. I suppose they'll know it when they see it."
"Maybe the sign's turned up. Maybe they're back."
"You think this cult is still around?" Steph asked.
Selena shrugged. "It's their symbol. Their weapon of choice was a dagger, though they weren't above using poison or something else now and again. They were trained in every method of killing from an early age. Think of them as Muslim Ninjas, and you've got the picture. They were fanatics, an isolated, minority sect. They believed they were the only ones with a true interpretation of Muhammad's teachings."
"How many were there?"
"No one knows."
Carter massaged his throbbing temples. "They can't possibly still exist."
Stephanie said, "I'm thinking of Sherlock Holmes."
"This isn't a movie, Steph."
"Don't be an asshole, Nick. What I mean is Holmes said that if the possible is eliminated, only the impossible remains. Something like that. If it is the assassins, they exist in the modern world, even though everyone thinks it's impossible."
"If they still exist and have been hiding out for hundreds of years, they're pretty good at it. How do we get a handle on them?"
Selena frowned. "We need more information about them. I know where we might start."
"Mali? What's in Mali?"
"The Ahmed Baba Institute. It's a library in Timbuktu with a collection of Arabic manuscripts and papers going back to the thirteenth century. You want to know something about Muslim history in the Middle Ages, that's the source."
Nick saw her excitement. Pure research on obscure texts, what she'd done for years. It had brought her world wide academic recognition.
"You want to go to Timbuktu?"
"If there's any contemporary reference to what really happened to the Hashishin, it's the best place to look for it. All you can find anywhere else is standard history. That won't help us."
Stephanie flicked away lint from her dark suit. Nick remembered when she'd shown up for work sporting bright colors. Now she was all business.
Selena continued. "Steph, I need a research permit. They're very protective of those manuscripts. It shouldn't be hard with my credentials. I gave a lecture two years ago to an international conference on Islamic history and language and I've been invited to speak again when the next one comes up. I could use my real identity and say I was doing research for that."
Stephanie made a note. "We can arrange that."
"She can't go alone, Steph. I'll go with her. We've got advisors in Mali, the government's friendly. We can send our pistols by diplomatic pouch."
"Damn it, Nick. You're a Director now. You're not supposed to go off somewhere where you could get shot at or captured. Besides, all the intelligence agencies in the world will be looking for these people. They can find them."
"The other agencies don't have Selena. This is a tactical decision and it's my call. She doesn't have enough field experience to go alone. Ronnie and Lamont are out of it. That leaves me."
Selena waved her hand. "Excuse me, I'm right here." Her face was flushed. "You don't think I can take care of myself?"
"That's not the point. You're a rookie. This will be your first time in Africa. Consider it part of your training."
Selena looked at him, nodded once. Carter knew he'd hear about it later.
"I'm going, Steph."
Stephanie sighed. She knew it was hopeless when Nick made up his mind. She let it go.
"You're too well known in the Muslim world. You'll need a cover legend, a disguise."
It was true. After Jerusalem, he was a high priority target for the fanatics.
"We'll figure it out," he said.