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  • Published: 8 June 2023
  • ISBN: 9781405958790
  • Imprint: Penguin eBooks
  • Format: EBook
  • Pages: 432

Clive Cussler's Fire Strike

Extract

The vintage Soviet-era snowcat crested the final rise on the steep climb. Its big diesel engine belched a plume of oily smoke as it roared with the effort. It had taken three hours clanking through a narrow pass high in the towering Pamir Mountains through the swirling snow to reach the ancient Tibetan fortress. It loomed above the forested valley floor, perched on the edge of an insurmountable cliff. Its sturdy walls could resist the siege weapons of its day, but the fort’s remoteness and sheer inaccessibility had always been its primary defense.

All but the most determined visitors were deterred from even venturing here. How the mighty stone edifice had ever been built by ancient hands in this location several hundred years ago remained a mystery.

The snowcat finally ground to a halt just opposite the short drawbridge crossing the abyssal chasm. The cab door opened and a sturdy Chechen in a sheepskin coat and boots leaped out, then opened the rear doors for the seven esteemed guests.

The passengers—six men and one woman—stretched out knotted muscles and aching backs from the long, monotonous ride. They had sat in silence for the entire trip, sizing each other up with sidelong glances in the snowcat’s spacious but utilitarian cabin. Outside in the frigid air, their breaths jetted out of their mouths, but the vapors were quickly swept away by the biting wind.

The morbidly obese Venezuelan, Yeferson Osorio, was the head of security for South America’s largest drug cartel. His red-rimmed nostrils and eyes suggested he was addicted to his own product. Despite the temperature, he didn’t button up his gaudy, full-length ermine coat and his shoulder-length hair danced in the snowy breeze.

Osorio was familiar with the elegant Russian, Yakov Mityaev, and the bespectacled Chinese woman, Wu Shanshan, from the reports he’d read. Like him, they were the functional equivalents of security chiefs for their respective criminal enterprises, heading up organizations with intelligence-gathering assets that equaled or exceeded the capabilities of most nations. Had Osorio known these two world-class dirtbags were attending today’s gathering he would have made other arrangements entirely.

The Venezuelan couldn’t identify the others, but he assumed they were high- ranking members of their respective security departments as well. The tattoos peeking beyond the collar and sleeves of the Japanese man identified him as a yakuza even without the missing finger. A portly, clean-shaven Indian; a silver-toed, cowboy-booted Mexican; and a Thai highlander wearing a bright yellow ski parka that reached to his knees rounded out the rest of the passengers.

Osorio wondered if there had ever been a gathering of this level of criminal technical talent before. Police organizations around the world would salivate at the opportunity to gather them all up in one fell swoop.

The Chechen called into his walkie-talkie and a moment later the fort’s portcullis rose on its chains. He pointed the seven visitors toward the cavernous entrance, where a tall soldier in a civilian snowsuit waited for them, a rifle slung over one shoulder. A third, shorter man stood by his side with a wand to check for weapons and other contraband items.

The seven invited shuffled toward the gate, their apprehension rising with each step. What lay beyond could change their lives forever.

Or end them.

Osorio silently fumed at the importunity of yet another weapons check as he stood inside the airport-styled millimeter wave scanner. He raised his arms above his massive head for the third time that day. These people were taking their security precautions seriously. He’d counted at least fifty armed guards as he made his way through the ancient castle. It would have been impossible to assault the fortress with any hope of success.

The former Cuban intelligence officer monitoring the wave scanner fought back a smile as he examined the digital readout of the rotund gangster. Osorio’s thick beard couldn’t fully hide the double chin waddling beneath his jawline. At just over six feet tall with a size sixty-four waist, the Venezuelan crime boss was built like an enormous avocado. His designer-label green velvet tracksuit, though quite expensive, only added to the comic effect.

Despite his poor physique and even poorer health, the crime boss came fully vetted and possessed more than sufficient funds to qualify for today’s auction. The unfortunate man had to climb five flights of stairs because the ancient fortress had no elevator. Sweat beaded his forehead. The Cuban was surprised the Venezuelan hadn’t dropped dead of a heart attack with the exertion. How they would have ever managed to move his four-hundred-pound carcass from the narrow stairwell without a forklift would have been anyone’s guess.

The Cuban signaled for Osorio to quit the booth as he whispered in his comms, “All clear.” He nodded at the smaller bins on the table. “Your jewelry and watch will be returned to you after you finish your business with Mr. Martin,” he said in Spanish.

Osorio answered him in the same language. “Make sure they are, pendejo.”

The insult wiped the solicitous smile off the Cuban’s face. His eyes narrowed as a voice command reverberated in his earpiece. He turned toward the guests.

Señora y señores, we have one last stop. Please follow me.”

Osorio snatched up his ermine coat from the bin on the nearby table and followed the Russian and the Chinese into another room, where a portable retinal scanning station had been installed. The ex–intelligence officer pointed at the seat just vacated by the Indian.

“Ms. Wu”—not her real name, of course—“if you please.”

Wu nodded and took the seat, and the technician gave her instructions. She leaned forward and placed her chin on the machine’s chin rest. Moments later, the retina of Wu’s right eye had been scanned and her identity validated. Mityaev followed suit, as did Osorio, who grunted with the effort of mounting the small plastic chair and rising from it.

“Time for business.” The smiling Cuban escorted the seven invitees to a final waiting room. It was well appointed with luxurious, locally crafted furniture. Bottles of wine and iced tins of beluga caviar sat on a long table, along with a silver samovar, bottles of water, glasses, eating utensils, and the like.

“Please help yourselves to refreshments. Señor Martin will be with you momentarily.”

The Russian and Chinese helped themselves to cups of steaming hot tea from the samovar while Osorio cracked open a bottle of water. The others picked at the slabs of goat and sheep cheeses, or tore off hunks from the giant wheels of colorful tandoor-baked flatbreads. Nobody wanted their thoughts clouded by alcohol. They all took a seat in comfortable chairs.

They drank in silence as they watched the large LCD television display. On it, a tall, raven-haired woman in baggy gray prison coveralls paced the floor, her thick-soled running shoes squeaking on the worn stones at each turn. Occasionally she would stop and stare up at the high-def CCTV camera recording her every move. One of her sparkling green eyes was blackened above her high cheekbone, and her lower lip slightly swollen. She looked like a runway model who had taken a nasty spill in a bicycle crash. She’d obviously had a rough time of it somewhere along the line.

Osorio recognized the face. He wondered if the others did as well. He hoped not.

Things could go very sideways if they did.


Clive Cussler's Fire Strike Mike Maden

Juan Cabrillo and the crew of the Oregon are back in an explosive new installment of the #1 New York Times bestselling series.

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