Cover Reveal: The Annihilation Protocol by Michael Laurence
By Crime HQNovember 8, 2019
Take a first look at the cover for Michael Laurence's The Annihilation Protocol and then start reading below with an exclusive excerpt!
Enjoy the cover and an exclusive excerpt from the follow-up to The Extinction Agenda in a series described as “Jack Reacher falling into a plot written by Dan Brown.” (James Rollins, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Crucible)
For centuries, a mysterious syndicate known as the Thirteen has staged a silent coup, infiltrating governments and manipulating the course of world events. It’s more powerful than any nation, deadlier than any army. The time has come for it to emerge from the shadows and claim the entire world as its own. And only FBI Special Agent James Mason and his longtime friends stand in its way.
After narrowly preventing a global pandemic, Mason and his team discover an even deadlier threat has already been set into motion. An unknown adversary has produced enough of a lethal nerve gas to wipe every major city off the face of the world, and their only clue to finding it lies in a cryptic message written in the blood of a man found entombed behind a concrete wall. It isn’t until another victim appears—right in the heart of Central Park—that Mason realizes the murders are personal in nature, and figuring out the connection between them is the key to averting catastrophe.
Eight million lives hang in the balance and their only chance of surviving lies in the hands of Mason, his old friends, and a new partner he’s not entirely sure he can trust. Can his team track down a sinister agent codenamed Scarecrow before toxic gas fills the streets of New York City, or will the true power pulling the strings from behind the scenes—the Thirteen—succeed in enacting its genocidal agenda?
Shelter Island, New York
The man seated at the Macassar ebony desk was not accustomed to being made to wait. He wore a Brioni Bespoke suit and a tie the color of honey, which called attention to his amber eyes. His silver hair was slicked back from his lined forehead and bushy brows. He had the aquiline nose of his forebears, as evidenced by the gold-framed portraits hanging in the trompe-l’oeil arches. The fireplace behind him cast a flickering glare upon the gothic armchairs, bookshelves, and red stag heads staring down at him from their mounts. The velvet drapes were drawn, stranding shadows as dark as his mood in the far corners of the room.
He was known as Quintus, Latin for fifth, an honorific bequeathed to him by his father, although if everything went according to plan, he would soon assume the mantle of Quartus, if not higher. Even his esteemed great-grandfather had never aspired to such heights, and yet here he was on the cusp of elevating the status of his family name.
For the last hundred years, the members of Pantheon Maioris Tredecim—literally translated from Latin as Pantheon Majority Thirteen—had been content in their respective roles, largely because they had all been in agreement about their vision for the future of the world. Despite their numeric rankings, their voices had been equal. Decisions affecting all of them had been made by the majority, and always after considerable debate. Technology had shrunken the world, though. Gone were the geographic boundaries that had once defined their empires, blurring borders that had been carefully negotiated and strictly enforced since the advent of the syndicate nearly three and a half centuries ago. Whereas communism and socialism allowed them to exert their influence over the system, the dawn of Reagan-era capitalism had created competition where there had been none before, allowing the more ambitious among them to discreetly enter industries formerly considered monopolies, off-limits to all but the specific member who controlled them, causing fortunes to fluctuate and tensions to rise.
None of them had previously contested their rankings as the wealth and power each honorific possessed had remained relatively constant. The path to ascension, rising in stature, had been one that took decades, a combination of careful long-term planning by one house and a stroke of misfortune for another, and even then, Quintus was only aware of it having happened a handful of times. Time had changed that, however. Estates had diminished through generations of inheritance by pampered children with neither the foresight nor the strength to do what needed to be done. Power had diffused through lineages that did nothing but squabble over it. Members had grown complacent. Bloodlines had come to an end. Worse, human nature had interceded. Families were no longer satisfied with maintaining a seat at the table and conspired to rule it. While there had always been such men, none of them had ever attempted a coup d’état.
Secundus had fired the first shot in a war that many of them believed had become inevitable. Although he’d vehemently denied it, his family, through subsequent generations, had patiently acquired solid minority holdings in critical resources outside of its designated sphere, resources that would increase exponentially in value after the coming cataclysm, the Great Culling, the time for which, they all agreed, was now at hand. While the other twelve argued over the ultimate mechanism by which they would thin the herd, he’d gambled on releasing one of his minion’s engineered viruses—the profits from the fallout would have easily doubled his already considerable estate and elevated him to Primus—and lost. In doing so, he’d not only risked exposing the entire organization, he’d altered its dynamics by sowing the seeds of distrust and instigating what Quintus speculated would become a free-for-all, thirteen-way battle for supremacy each could blame the other for starting.
He’d spent his entire life preparing for this opportunity, though. As his father and grandfather had before him. And now, with Secundus’s failure to unleash his pandemic, his position was ripe for the taking. Tertius and Quartus were undoubtedly already implementing the machinations of their ascension and Quintus’s rise was anything but guaranteed, which meant he needed to succeed where Secundus had failed, and his entire plan hinged upon the man who had already missed the prearranged starting time of their virtual meeting.
His laptop chimed to announce the arrival of an external user to his secure virtual conference room. The screen remained black for several moments before the shadowed form of a man drew contrast from the darkness. He wore a sugegasa, a conical Asian hat woven from straw. It was frayed around the brim and concealed the upper two-thirds of his face. Only the lobes of his ears, the tip of his nose, and his effeminate mouth and chin were visible above his slender neck and narrow shoulders.
“You’re late,” Quintus said.
The man made no reply. He rarely spoke, for reasons that were obvious to anyone who’d ever heard the sound of his voice.
“I trust you had no trouble relocating my cache.”
The man offered a nearly imperceptible nod.
“Then I assume we’re still on schedule.”
Again, a slight dip of the chin.
“You know why I called this meeting. Are you prepared to commence?”
A faint shake of the head.
“Must I remind you that the remainder of your payment is contingent upon the successful demonstration of the efficacy of the product?”
The sound of breathing from the speakers became agitated. Quintus intuited the man’s question.
“You want to know what happened to the team at the slaughterhouse.”
The man nodded.
“Let’s just say that no one who knew you were there is in any kind of condition to share that information.”
The man made no appreciable movement.
“I’ve reviewed the forensics reports myself. The containment tanks were pulverized and buried under tons of burning rubble when the roof collapsed and the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer failed to detect the presence of any of the precursor chemicals. Everyone with working knowledge of the experimentation is dead. No one has any idea you were ever there.”
The man’s lips tightened.
“As far as the Thirteen are concerned, you were only there for your experience in bioengineering, to help incorporate that infernal bacterium into the Hoyl’s virus. None of them has the slightest idea of what you were working on for me. Or what I intend to do with it. Trust me when I say that if they did, we’d both already be dead or spending what little time we have left on the run like Secundus.”
The man’s facial expression remained unchanged.
Quintus felt a surge of anger. He was in charge. The man on the screen was his subordinate and in no position to dictate the direction of this meeting. The hardest part of his job was already done. Anyone could finish it from here for a fraction of the cost. He should just consider himself fortunate that Quintus hadn’t already had him killed.
“The Hoyl is dead. His men are dead. Your lab was sanitized before the entire building was incinerated. Any residual traces of the chemicals burned off in the fire. The other twelve in the pantheon are oblivious. My assistant and I are the only two people alive who know what you were doing there.”
A knock on his office door. There was only one person who would have dared to interrupt him. He pressed the button underneath his desktop and the lock disengaged.
The door opened inward and a hulking silhouette entered from the anteroom. While Baxter was technically his personal assistant, he hadn’t been hired for his secretarial skills. The former Navy SEAL was the team leader of his personal security detail, which formed a veritable special ops team at his command, day and night. He stood close to seven feet tall and looked like he’d been chiseled from a mountain. His buzz cut was flat, his face angular, and his chest muscular enough to absorb a shotgun blast.
“This arrived at the gate.” He carried a rectangular box in his massive hands. “The guy who dropped it off claimed he was given fifty dollars to deliver it to this address. He was told we’d be expecting it.”
An unsettling smile appeared from the shadows beneath the brim of the man’s triangular hat on the monitor. Quintus glanced up at his assistant, who confirmed his suspicion with a nod.
“What’s in the box?” he asked.
The man’s smile widened and revealed his teeth all the way back to his molars.
It appeared to be an ordinary cardboard box with Japanese characters scrawled on the top. Quintus recognized them. He knew exactly what they meant.
“I demand an answer,” he said. “What’s in the box?”
The man’s smile didn’t falter. He made a rolling gesture with his delicate hand.
Quintus nodded to Baxter, who grabbed the box and walked halfway across the room with it.
“Carefully,” he said.
His assistant removed a knife from beneath his jacket and slit the tape. Lifted an edge. Tried to see inside. Cautiously raised the opposite flap. He appeared genuinely confused until his eyes suddenly widened and locked onto his employer’s.
“What is it?” Quintus asked.
Baxter reached inside, pulled out a gas mask, and let the box fall to the floor. The color drained from his face.
Quintus glanced at the empty box on the floor.
There wasn’t a second mask.
“Give it to me!” he shouted. “Hurry!”
Baxter looked at the gas mask, then at Quintus. The gas mask again.
The man on the screen started to laugh. It was a horrible sound, like a wet, rasping cough.
“I order you to give it to me!”
His most trusted confidant, the man who had sworn to protect his life, met his stare.
Baxter’s free hand clenched into a fist. He bared his teeth and released a humming noise from deep in his chest. Took several deep breaths.
“I’ve seen what it does,” he said. “How it kills. The pain. Jesus Christ. I can’t… I’m sorry.”
He quickly donned the gas mask.
“You can’t do this to me!” Quintus shouted at the laptop monitor. “Do you have any idea who I am? The other twelve will scour the globe to find you. And when they do, you will be subjected to suffering beyond any the world has ever known. You and everyone you hold dear.”
The man on the screen continued to make that awful laughing sound.
Baxter stiffened. Sputtered. His eyes widened. Filled with tears. His pupils shrank to pinpricks. He coughed. Grabbed his chest. Tore at his shirt. Vomited into the mask.
Quintus looked at the man on the computer screen, whose laughter abruptly ceased.
Baxter collapsed to the floor. Started to convulse. Flopped onto his back. Gasped. Choked. His entire body clenched, then went limp. He issued a hissing sound that freckled the inside of the visor with blood as his chest deflated.
It didn’t rise again.
That had been the promised demonstration.
The Novichok agent had been inside the gas mask, presumably within the canister filter itself.
Less than thirty seconds. Start to finish.
Had Quintus opened the box, there was no doubt in his mind that he would have put on the gas mask. The man on the screen had gambled that his hired hand would betray him and, in doing so, eliminated the only other person who could connect either of them to the slaughterhouse.
When the man finally spoke, it was in a gravelly voice. His cadence was strange, halting. He had to take deep breaths between words.
Quintus walked around his desk and stood over Baxter, whose blood and vomit concealed his face. Like the gas itself, they were completely contained inside the mask. The formerly imposing figure was now little more than a useless mound of flesh.
He was going to need a new assistant.
“Yes,” he said. “I believe that will work just fine.”
When he returned to the laptop, the man was already gone.
Crime Scene #2
Special Agent James Mason struck off toward the distant police cordon, his FBI windbreaker flaring on the breeze, his sunglasses shielding his blue eyes from the winter sun. His hair had grown shaggy, but getting it cut was the furthest thing from his mind.
“Are you sure it’s him?” he asked.
“The remains have been down there under all that mud doing little more than breeding bacteria for the last week,” Todd Locker said. He had a deep, melodic voice that sounded strange coming from someone who looked remarkably like a tall, skinny mole. “All I can say with any kind of certainty is that the decedent is definitively male and somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty years old.”
“There should be some rather unmistakable characteristics.”
“Gunshot wounds to both shoulders. Front-to-back, through-and-through. Exit wounds consistent with what one would expect from nine-millimeter rounds. He had fluid in his lungs, meaning he was still breathing when he went under. So unless you’re telling me we’re looking for more than one body matching that description, I’m fairly confident this is your guy, but that’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Mason nodded. He’d given the Assistant Director of the Rocky Mountain Regional Forensic Laboratory explicit instructions to call him the moment the divers recovered the body from the bottom of the frozen lake. He needed to be sure this time. He’d already buried his former partner once.
Locker led him from the makeshift parking lot toward a line of skeletal aspens, which served as the framework for a cordon of yellow police tape. He wore his dark hair in a ponytail that bisected the letters CSRT emblazoned across the back of his windbreaker and tiny round glasses that perched on the tip of his nose. His neck was tattooed with a biomechanical design reminiscent of H.R. Giger’s work on Aliens. It was a carefully cultivated appearance intended to keep him out of the courtroom and in the field, where he could better utilize his skills.
Mason flashed his badge at the waiting officer, who controlled access to the site with a digital clipboard. Locker needed no introduction. He showed his ID as a courtesy, thanked the officer by his first name, and struck off through the tall weeds toward the distant lake.
Everything had changed since Mason was last here. Save for the drifts that lingered in the shade of the trees, all of the snow had melted, leaving the field muddy and choppy with the footprints of the crime scene response team and police divers, who’d been out here dredging the lake for the past five days. Since it froze from the top down, only the surface had turned to ice. The twelve feet of water and twenty inches of sediment beneath it hadn’t even been close. Of course, the task of recovering the body would have been a whole lot faster and easier had the weather been more accommodating and their manpower not been divided between four separate crime scenes, none of which was anything resembling textbook. Between the burned ruins of the slaughterhouse, this lake, the wreckage of the tram in the underground tunnel, and the Global Allied Biotechnology and Pharmaceuticals building at the former AgrAmerica complex, Locker had his hands more than full. Especially if Mason was right about the implications of the torn piece of paper he’d found.
And the chemical formula written on it.
He looked back over his shoulder to make sure he was out of earshot before speaking. Very few people involved with the investigation were apprised of some of the more sensitive details, chief among them that the formula belonged to one of the Soviet Union’s rumored Cold War-era Novichok agents, designed to both increase the efficacy of and stabilize the ordinarily volatile German nerve gas sarin, allowing it to persist exponentially longer in the environment in both liquid and gaseous forms.
“Have you found any evidence to suggest they were successfully able to produce any Novichok?”
“We’ve scoured what’s left of the slaughterhouse with state-of-the-art carbon nanotube detectors and run thousands of soil and residue samples through the gas chromatograph-mass spectrometer, but haven’t found so much as a trace of a single precursor chemical. Chances are the fire would have consumed them, anyway. Assuming they were even there in the first place.”
“We can’t afford to assume anything.”
“You’re telling me. I’ve got the DHS sniffing all around the periphery of this investigation.”
Mason nodded his understanding. The Department of Homeland Security was a veritable army beholden only to the president and granted authority under the Patriot Act to do everything it deemed necessary to protect the citizens of the United States, including insinuating itself into any investigation with potential national security implications.
A gray shape appeared through the cattails, where a raft with an outboard motor had been dragged through the shallows and onto dry ground. The diver who’d recovered the remains sat on the side while he changed out of his neoprene wetsuit. He glanced up at the sound of the men crashing toward him through the reeds.
“Can you give us a few minutes?” Locker asked.
The officer nodded, brushed past them, and headed back toward the cordon. He looked like he hadn’t slept in days.
Locker climbed up onto the pontoon and leaned over the black body bag resting in the bottom of the boat. He unzipped it halfway and folded back the flap.
A horrible stench struck Mason. He covered his mouth and nose with his hand and stepped past Locker so he could better see the remains. The level of decomposition was more advanced than he’d anticipated. He slipped a nitrile glove onto his free hand, reached inside, and smeared the mud out of the dead man’s eyes and mouth. The skin was pallid and gelatinous, distended with absorbed fluids that contorted the features, and yet there was no doubt in his mind that this was the man he’d driven all the way out here to identify.
He turned away and stared across the plains toward the distant Rocky Mountains, their sharp, snowcapped peaks forming a serrated blade against the horizon. His former partner had done the exact same thing before setting into motion the series of events culminating in him shooting the ice beneath his own feet and vanishing into the dark water.
“You know how this works,” Locker said. “It’s a simple answer to a simple question.”
Mason remembered every detail of that night with perfect clarity. He’d sighted Kane down the barrel of his pistol as his former partner materialized from the blowing snow, his left arm hanging uselessly at his side, blood dripping from the gun clenched in his fist. They’d both known there was no way Mason could let him walk away, not after what he’d done, and yet he’d desperately attempted to justify his actions.
Everything I’ve done has been for my country!
His former partner had been part of a century-old plot to murder countless people with a genetically engineered flu virus. He’d conspired with Victor Thornton, Mason’s egomaniacal brother-in-law, and a seemingly immortal monster with piercing blue eyes known as the Hoyl, to integrate a bacterium that accelerated the process of decomposition into the deadly microbe’s viral envelope, preventing the threat of mutation and eliminating the need to dispose of the sheer quantity of bodies littering the streets in the wake of the resulting pandemic.
This is about survival. We’re fighting a war, whether you choose to admit it or not. A war we’re already losing.
Kane had helped track down the IRS agent who’d stumbled upon their financial trail during their plan’s lone window of vulnerability and burned her alive to cover their tracks. In doing so, he’d stolen from Mason the one thing in his life that mattered, for that investigative officer was his wife, Angie.
Our entire species is poised on the brink of extinction. We need to act decisively before it’s too late.
And he hated Kane for it. Equally, he hated him for drowning himself in the frigid water and taking the names of those who pulled his strings to his grave with him. Men who hid behind their money and power, who believed themselves to be above the law.
I’m just a cog in the bigger machine. A machine that will continue to roll. With or without me. And there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
A machine known as the Thirteen.
They hadn’t just been experimenting with the Hoyl’s virus inside that slaughterhouse, Mason now knew; they’d been at some unknown stage in the production of a nerve gas deadlier than any the world has ever known, a chemical weapon of mass destruction capable of wiping out entire cities in a matter of seconds, a Novichok agent that was potentially somewhere out there right now. And Mason’s former partner had been the only man alive who could have led them to it.
“Is this the body of Special Agent Spencer Kane?” Locker asked.
Mason looked one last time at the distant horizon, where the earth rose in defiance of the heavens, and started back toward his car.
“Make sure there’s nothing left of him when you’re done,” he said. “Not even ashes.”
© Michael Laurence 2019