A Brand New Thriller
Huge congrats to best-selling author Jerry Hatchett on his hot new release, the long-awaited Unallocated Space. It immediately climbed the charts to grab top digs among Amazon's Organized Crime Thrillers. You might recall that Jerry gave us a hint of what was coming just a few weeks ago, right here, on MB4. Today, he has graciously agreed to give us a sneak peak of his explosive new thriller.So hang on to your hats, folks!
"Good hell, Flatbread. Who names a horse Johnny?"
I glanced over at Ditto and watched his green self bob up and down in my night vision as his own horse climbed the rocky trail. "You ever been quiet for five minutes in your life, just because?" I said.
"Got a question for you."
Johnny slowed, picked his way through a ten-foot patch of bigger stones, about the size of bowling balls. Maybe if I ignored Ditto he'd clap his trap.
Ditto said, "What you think the public would think of us?"
"Most of 'em would cheer us on, but we'd end up villains anyway."
"How you figure?"
"The media would make us out to be monsters and find a couple dozen Americans who agreed with them and blast it twenty-four-seven."
"Assholes," he said. "Somebody's gotta do it."
I nodded and gave Johnny a nudge to pick it up a bit.
About two hours later, I checked my GPS. We were there. I reined Johnny to an easy stop. There was nothing to tie to in this hellhole of a place, so I looped the reins around his fetlocks as a makeshift hobble that would allow a quick getaway if needed. Ditto did likewise with his mount, whose name changed daily, but I think on this day the mare's name was Wildfire. ("’Cause that's one more awesome damn horse song," according to Ditto.)
We started our hike up the remaining distance, a couple hundred yards to go. It's slow going to check every footstep in advance to be sure you're not stepping on anything that could make a sound, but after a half hour we could see the destination through our goggles. A black hole in the side of the mountain.
I switched my view from infrared to thermal. Scanned the mountain face above the cave opening. Found what I was looking for: a hundred feet up, a smaller hole, leaking enough heat to look like a bonfire through the goggles. "Intel looks good," I whispered.
"No time like right now," Ditto said. "Let's do this thing."
We continued our quiet ascent and in a few minutes we stood outside the cave, me just to the left edge of the six-foot-wide opening, Ditto on the right. It was high enough for us to stand. That helped. I used hand signals for us to move in and we both took a step before Ditto held up a fist. I froze. He pointed to an electronic device on his chest and we pulled back to our positions flanking the hole.
The gadget was the latest and greatest Blackberry. It could send and receive electronic mail anytime it had a signal, and thanks to an adapter that connected to our satphones, that translated to pretty much anytime and anywhere we had a look at the sky. Ditto's had obviously vibrated. He detached it and flipped up his goggles. I could see its screen glowing a dim green as he read the message. Then he was typing on it with his thumbs. As soon as he stopped, mine vibrated its tickle-buzz across my Kevlar vest. I raised my headset and read the message.
SHIT. AIRSTRIKE IN 7 MIN
Damn. I stowed the Blackberry, dropped my goggles, and raised five fingers to Ditto. We set five-minute timers on our watches and, on my signal, simultaneously started the countdown. No time left for the kind of stealth I preferred. I signaled one more time and we moved inside the cave as quietly as we could while still making haste.
We worked our way through a few small chambers that twisted and turned, and then we could see light ahead in a larger space. At the edge of the opening to that space, we dropped to our bellies, flipped up our NV gear, made a quick scan. Nine assholes inside. The most important one, sitting in front of a laptop with a cable snaking up to the roof of the cavern and disappearing inside a vertical shaft, was on the leftmost wall. The cavern was lit by a couple propane lanterns on stands.
I counted down three fingers to Ditto and it was on. The left side was mine. Our suppressed M4s made quick work of most of them while we had the element of surprise. No idiotic movie spraying on full auto, just quick and efficient double-taps to the head. Seven of them could now have much more intimate conversations with Allah. Two remained, my guy with the laptop—I did not want to kill him yet—and one guy on the right behind a large wooden shipping crate. We stood and entered. I was focused on Computer Guy, but my peripheral vision picked up things going very wrong on the right. Standing from behind the crate and screaming like an animal, Ditto's guy opened up with an AK-47. My partner wasn't fast enough. Ditto's head burst open in a sickening spray of gore. Sonofabitch. I pivoted right and returned the favor to the jihadi. There was no need to check on Ditto.
When I turned back to Computer Guy, he was coming out of his state of shock, his hands over the keyboard. I popped a .223 round into each shoulder and he was no longer concerned with typing. While he wailed, I checked my watch. The firefight had felt like a half hour but my countdown was just moving through 3:18. I was at the computer in three quick steps. I grabbed the guy by his nasty beard and yanked him away from the computer. I took his place on the rock he'd been using as an office chair.
The laptop was asking for a password. In Pashto, I screamed, "What is the password?" to the waste of human flesh on the floor, still wailing and whining and slobbering. He looked at me and shook his head. I shot him in each knee and re-presented the question.
2:59... He was going into shock now, the blubbering giving way to a quiet mewling. He stared at me through wide, unfocused eyes. I had no time for this. My mission was simple. Recover the computer and its password, by any means. Even if the crypto guys could break through the password at all, that took time. The name of this game was Get the Info Now. Whatever data the laptop held could be useless in two days, much less the two months it might take to crack. I handed him a small notepad and a pen and started screaming, "Write the password! Write the password!" He spit at me.
2:47... Using my tactical knife, I split his pants open at the crotch. No underwear, and the stench of the filthy bastard's genitals was hellish. I grabbed the head of his penis in my left hand, stretched it up, and put the knife at the base. This takes the defiance out of ninety-nine percent of all men on the planet.
2:35... This one-percenter spit at me again and started screaming about Allah. I drew the knife lightly across, enough to bring plenty of blood but not enough to cut it off; the blood loss would be too quick for my needs. He continued to pontificate on Allah.
2:28... Time for the one-hundred-percent solution. I reached around to my pack, dropped a zipper on its bottom right, and reached inside. From a rubberized compartment, I pulled a small dead pig. I rammed my knife into its heart and pulled it out, now smeared with porcine blood.
2:07... Exaltation of his god ended and he stared at the knife. I put it to his throat and said, "Write the password or I'll send you to hell right now. No paradise. No wine. No virgins."
When he finished writing, I keyed in the password and the laptop opened to a screen of email addresses and phone numbers. Damn skippy. I turned back to the guy and slit his throat. After cutting the line that fed from the laptop up into the shaft, I pulled its battery and stowed the computer in my backpack, then left the way we had come, this time at a dead run.
1:31... Just inside the cave entrance, I dropped a laser designator to light the way for the missiles, then hustled back down the trail as fast as I could go without stumbling and tripping on the endless rocks. A sprained ankle right now would be a mortal wound.
0:30... I reached the horses. Unhobbled Ditto's mare first, pointed her downhill, slapped her ass. She bolted. With the mission complete, the sight of Ditto's head bursting like a melon started cycling through my mind. I unwound the reins from Johnny's fetlocks and leapt into the saddle, reined him around to head back down the mountain, then kickstarted him with my heels. "Go, Johnny! Go!" He launched. In my mind, poor Ditto's head exploded again.
0:10... The wind was an icy razor on my face. The countdown expired, and I knew I had ninety seconds max before the F-18s brought hell. Johnny was hauling ass, but we weren't far enough away from the cave for my comfort. It turned out to be closer to thirty seconds. I saw four little spits of fire in the sky ahead as the missiles dropped from their moorings on the F-18s, then ignited and streaked toward the laser designator, just as we reached the base of the mountain. The ground leveled out, and Johnny needed no encouragement. He was a magnificent creature with somewhere to go. We went.
The explosions at our backs lit the valley before us as the world roared. I felt heat and pressure a few seconds later, but that's it. I applied the brakes and Johnny stopped. We turned around and watched the cave spit fire from its maw and a column of sparks from the vent hole above it.
I patted Johnny on the neck, his taut hide drenched with sweat in the cold Afghan night and radiating the smell of proud horse. Then I leaned left and stretched way forward in the saddle so I could look him in the eye. "Buddy," I said, "I'll get you out of this miserable excuse of a country someday, and we'll never have to do this kind of shit again. I promise."
I had seen pictures. Read all about it. Even saw an episode about it on a reality show about amazing something or other. High-res and high-def did nothing to prepare me for the real thing. 'Amazing' didn't come close. It was shocking.
SPACE, not just the world's largest casino hotel, but the world's largest man-made structure. The company was my newest client; their high-dollar slot machines were paying out huge jackpots more often than they should, and the company suspected foul play. Hence the arrival of yours truly, owner and sole employee of Sam Flatt Digital Forensics.
The property loomed on the far south end of the neon canyon called Las Vegas Boulevard, a.k.a. the Strip, like an unearthly presence. Which was exactly the point: The illusion was that of a space station, and its realism made the rest of Vegas's architectural wonders look like kitschy little toys from a dollar store. When the limo was a couple miles from it, already it looked enormous. I don't know how many hundreds of acres it covered, but the whole thing was bathed in a bluish light that heightened the surreality of the scene. Tiny white strobes flashed at random across the whole thing, both on the structures and in the air.
A huge white glass dome housed the casino and anchored the center of the spread. From the center of the dome, a 185-floor round hotel climbed the night sky, a gleaming white shaft peppered sparsely with dark windows among glossy white ones. On the ground, five spokes connected to and radiated out from the dome’s perimeter. Each of these spokes terminated in a structure that was itself some noteworthy attraction. On the north spoke, the largest mall in the country. Others ended variously in everything from entertainment complexes to a NASA museum with a retired space shuttle. In a city full of spectacles, SPACE was the one to end them all.
When the driver turned into the complex, I saw that the twinkling strobes in the air weren’t mounted on anything. They were tiny flashing orbs that were flying themselves around like mechanized fireflies. Wow. We arrived at the portico, and I stepped out of the car without waiting for anyone to open the door. The hot night air hit me, felt like I'd opened the door on an oven. The difference between its dryness and the soggy heat back home in Houston was immediately apparent.
Outside the car, I was greeted by an attendant in white coveralls emblazoned front and back with the SPACE logo. "Mr. Flatt," the attendant said when I exited the car, "welcome to SPACE. I'm James Nichols and I'll be your host while you're here." I shook his hand. "If you'll come with me, I'll get you settled in and have your luggage brought up."
I followed him through an entrance fashioned like an air lock. Twenty feet inside, we boarded an escalator with clear steps. At the top of its long climb, we stepped onto a people mover, also with a transparent floor, that arced up and over the casino floor. Above us, the massive dome looked to be one giant video screen. Its realistic panorama of the space environment combined with the nearly invisible conveyor we were riding created a convincing illusion of floating through space between components of a space station. Well, except for the hundreds of gaming tables and thousands of slot and poker machines below us. After a lengthy ride we arrived at an elevated platform at the top center of the dome. That platform turned out to be the hotel lobby. Nichols ignored the desk and headed straight for a bank of elevators. The acceleration was unlike anything I'd experienced in an elevator, my ears popping as the floor numbers whizzed by. I felt it slowing and watched the display as the number settled on 140.
My suite looked like something straight from the future, all softly glowing glass and plush furnishings. I had expected a much more modest room but I have a bit of a thing about small spaces so I was glad to see the spacious accommodations. As Nichols was showing me around, my bags arrived. When I tried to tip the bellhop, he nodded and said, "Thank you, sir, but that won't be necessary," and backed out of the room.
"What's up with that?" I said.
"You're our guest, Mr. Flatt. Nothing here will cost you anything, unless you want to gamble." He smiled and said, "That's on your dime. By the way, here's your credential bracelet." He handed me a thin rubbery bracelet, bright blue. "It functions as your key. Just wear it and it does the rest." I thanked him and he left.
Even the water in the shower glowed along a blue-to-red spectrum depending on temperature. Clean and fresh in a hotel robe, I stood at the window with my phone and touched the icon to initiate a video chat with my daughter. Ally's mom, my ex, had moved them here a few years ago, after the divorce, when a good job came up in her field. Ally’s mom is an event planner who sets up conferences and conventions and such, and Vegas is a hotbed for that industry. I objected to the move, but it did no good. Abby Lowenstein Flatt is a stubborn and formidable woman, and I wasn't willing to create great strife between the two of us. We compromised: I wouldn't fight the move, and she wouldn't gripe about my unconventional lifestyle when Ally came to visit me back in Texas. It worked.
When Ally answered, I held the phone against the glass so the camera faced out at the amazing view. "Guess where I am?" I said.
"Hmmm, lots of lights," Ally said. "Oh my gosh, you're here, Daddy? In Las Vegas?"
"Why didn't you tell me you were coming?"
"Case just popped up this morning."
"Where are you staying?"
I braced myself. "SPACE."
"Daddy! You know I wanna see that place, and Mom won't take me! When can I come? Say I can come!"
"I don't know, sweetie. Not sure a casino is the best place for a fourteen-year-old, but I'll talk it over with your mom."
We chatted a few minutes more and said good-night.
I stood at the window and marveled at the north-facing view, Las Vegas spread before me like a bejeweled domain. If only I had known what I was standing on top of.
ABOUT JERRY HATCHETT
Jerry Hatchett grew up in the creatively fertile Mississippi Delta. His stories often draw from his eclectic background, providing a foundation for intriguing tales populated with everyday people who often find themselves in extraordinary circumstances. His business experience runs the gamut from pawnbroker to inventor to technologist to specialized expert in digital forensics.
Hatchett lists John Grisham, James Rollins, Nelson DeMille, and Ken Follett as major influences on his writing. “I want to entertain people by creating new worlds and people for them to love and hate, and I always try to write a story that you just can't put down,” he says.
A lifelong fan of Ole Miss and SEC football, he awaits each fall with zeal. He’s also a movie fanatic, an avid reader, and with uncharacteristic immodesty claims to cook the world’s best ribeyes. He currently resides in The Woodlands, TX, a suburb of Houston.