About a year ago, I got an out-of-the-blue call from Robert Ludlum’s agent. He’d read Darkness Falls and thought I might be the right novelist to fire up Ludlum’s excellent Covert-One series again. Needless to say, I was pretty surprised and also really flattered. Like so many other people, I grew up devouring Ludlum’s books, and he was one of a number of writers who inspired me to do what I do.
You’d think I’d have just accepted on the spot, but the idea of stepping into the shoes of one of the fathers of the modern thriller was a little unnerving. So I said I’d call back after I’d had a chance to study the series and make sure I could create a novel that Mr. Ludlum would have wanted to put his name on.
As luck would have it, I’d had an idea bouncing around in the back of my head for a few years about a parasitic infection that drives people insane. It turned out to be a perfect platform for the complex twists and edge-of-your-seat action that made Ludlum a household name.
In the end, the book turned out even better than I’d hoped. The Covert-One characters had rich backgrounds that made them fun to work with and after more than a decade of writing, I discovered that I could still learn a few tricks from one of the genre’s masters.
November 12 1739 Hours GMT+3
The winding, grassy track that Lt. Craig Rivera finally stopped at the edge of was a good fifteen feet wide, but seemed to have been created specifically to be difficult to spot from the air. He slid fully beneath the bush next to him and looked down the path to the south, seeing nothing but a lone cow grazing on a small patch of flowers.
"I found the road," he said quietly into his throat mike. "We'll parallel it heading… Wait. Stand by. I’ve got activity.”
A young girl appeared around the corner, naked except for a three-foot long chain hanging from her neck. Her breathless wailing was shockingly loud as she ran and Rivera tried unsuccessfully to make sense of the words she got out between sobs.
The cow broke from its daze as she passed, but instead of watching her, it looked back the way she’d come. Dust billowed from its back as it stamped and bucked nervously, seemingly uncertain what to do.
Rivera remained completely motionless, wanting the girl to be well out of sight before he broke cover. Instead of passing by, though, she crashed into the jungle less than ten feet from him and began desperately pulling back the edges of bushes as though she was searching for something.
A moment later, what she had been fleeing materialized around the bend in the road about a hundred yards to the south.
It looked like the entire population of one of the tiny local villages, each person sprinting so desperately that they could barely stay upright. Blood coated their faces, mixing with sweat and fanning out across their clothing and skin. Adult men and women were in front, with children and the elderly lagging a bit—physically slower, but apparently just as motivated.
“Hostiles coming from the south,” Rivera said quietly into his radio.
The leaves above him parted and he grabbed the girl, pulling her to the ground and clamping a hand over her mouth. She squirmed beneath him, but her size and exhaustion made her easy to control.
Using his free hand, he touched his mike again. “Thirty-five, maybe forty total. No weapons visible. Pull back. We’re going to try to walk away from this fight.”
He began sliding from beneath the bush but then froze when he saw the cow bolt for the jungle. At least five of the people coming up the road changed their trajectory and hit the frightened animal broadside, knocking it off its feet. Rivera barely noticed when the girl squirmed from beneath him and started pulling on his sleeve, trying to get him to run.
The cow struggled, trying to get back to its feet but the weight of the people on top of it kept it pinned on its side. They screamed in rage and frustration as they tore into the helpless beast with fists, feet, and teeth. A man wearing nothing but camo shorts got kicked powerfully in the face and Rivera assumed he was dead when he collapsed in the dirt. A moment later, though he was crawling unsteadily back toward the weakening animal.
Rivera leapt to his feet, grabbing the girl and starting to run back the way he’d come. They hadn’t made it more than ten yards when he heard the unmistakable crash of people entering the jungle behind.
A muzzle flashed in front of him and then another and another. The reassuring crack of gunfire drowned out the otherworldly screeching of his pursuers and he felt the hint of panic that had overtaken him dissipate.
His boys never missed. Never.
Finding a defensible position between two large trees, he stopped and turned, taking in the entire scene through the sights of his AK.
No one was chasing him anymore—they had been distracted by the more obvious fixed positions of his men and were going down left and right as they ran into withering fire. Their compatriots didn’t seem to notice, running past—and sometimes over—the fallen, focused only on the men shooting at them. In some cases, the people who had been hit didn’t seem to understand what had happened. They tried repeatedly to get up before finally succumbing to a wound that should have dropped them like a sack of potatoes.
His second in command had four people bearing down on him from fifteen yards away. One was a child no more than six years old and another a woman with what appeared to be a badly broken arm. Rivera ignored them and trained his gun on one of the two uninjured adult men in front, taking a gulp of air and holding it before pulling the trigger. The target went down but the other three got through, colliding with his old friend in an impact that reverberated through the trees.
Rivera tried to get another clear shot, but it was impossible—all he could see was a jumble of flesh, the flash of a knife, the color of blood. There was nothing he could do. His friend—a man he’d fought and trained with for more than five years—was never going to leave this place…