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Pocken: A Brazos Steele Adventure

Pocken: A Brazos Steele Adventure

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Pocken: A Brazos Steele Adventure

Lunghezza:
390 pagine
5 ore
Editore:
Pubblicato:
Oct 1, 2014
ISBN:
9781941536186
Formato:
Libro

Descrizione

Brazos Steele is back in his most daring adventure yet in this action-packed thriller from author Chris Pinney.

The Western Front 1917 - The Germans and their allies prepare to launch a series of biological weapons against the British in a desperate attempt to break the trench stalemate and win the war, but an unexpected turn of events prevents them from doing so. More than a century later, these same weapons are discovered near a military cemetery in France - with deadly consequences.

Five thousand miles across the ocean, a Houston police lieutenant and her team execute a routine drug bust and unwittingly stumble upon a cache of biological agents that are strangely similar to those found in France.

Is there a connection?

Brazos Steele is called in to investigate and soon finds himself face-to-face with a megalomaniacal Mexican businessman and an unlikely Islamic extremist with nothing to lose and who will stop at nothing to unleash his hellish scourge on America. As a chain of events unfolds that ultimately sets the stage for a disaster of epic proportions, Steele must act quickly – for failure is not an option.

Packed full of startling historical revelations, unexpected plot twists, and spine-tingling action, Pocken will prove to be a thrill ride from start to finish.

Editore:
Pubblicato:
Oct 1, 2014
ISBN:
9781941536186
Formato:
Libro

Informazioni sull'autore

Chris Pinney is the author of the popular Brazos Steele series of adventure novels. An amateur historian and travel enthusiast, he holds a doctorate in veterinary medicine and has his own practice in San Antonio, Texas.

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Pocken - Chris Pinney

POCKEN

Prologue

The Western Front 1917

The pre-dawn frost harbored the chill of death.

Private Eduardo Castillo adjusted the strap of his steel helmet and buttoned the collar of his grey overcoat. He climbed onto the fire step of his trench and peered cautiously over the parapet. To the south, the black sky rumbled and flashed a medley of orange and white. Thunderstorms? If only. Castillo knew better.

A shiver rippled through his aching body and his gut cramped, a lingering effect of the dysentery he had overcome a week ago. Much to Castillo’s relief, the wave of urgency passed quickly. He placed his rifle on top of the parapet and kept his finger curled on the trigger. He cocked his head, held his breath, and listened for the slightest sound that could herald danger. Nothing. He relaxed.

His eyes burned with exhaustion, yet Castillo didn’t dare close them. Falling asleep while on sentry duty constituted a capital offense. Not that he could fall asleep. The lice housed in the seams of his cotton underwear made sure of that.

Somewhere in the blackness in front of Castillo’s trench, a loud pffmp sounded and the pulsating white glow from a flare arced across the sky. At the apex of its ascent, the flare burst and illuminated the one hundred yard stretch of destruction that separated the enemy’s ditch from his. No Man’s Land. Littered with tangled barbed wire, damaged war equipment, and human remains in various stages of decomposition, it bore morbid testament to a world gone mad.

At twenty years of age, thin and standing barely 5’6" in his boots, Castillo didn’t exactly blend in with the enormous Prussians who inhabited the trench with him. Not that he would be expected to. He didn’t have a drop of Teutonic blood in him. His dark skin, black hair, and brown eyes attested to that. He was Mexican and he was damn proud of it.

Since his arrival in France four weeks earlier, the realities of war had hit home with a vengeance. Castillo quickly learned that honor and glory were not to be found in the mud and death that surrounded him. Instead, he and other civilized men were forced to live like rats in a maze of earthen burrows. Eight of his fellow countrymen had already suffered violent deaths—four from artillery shells, two from well-placed sniper bullets, and two from poison gas meant for the enemy, not them. Including himself, this left five in their special hand-picked unit to assist with the testing of Germany’s newest weapon, coined Der Keimträger. It was a tool the Germans claimed could bring a decisive end to the war. The weapon required trench mortars for deployment and that meant only one thing. A trip to the front lines.

But that wasn’t the only thing that had instilled a sense of dread in Castillo. When he learned what the Germans intended to do with the new weapon, he almost choked. Even Castillo’s commanding officer, Colonel Alfonso Ruiz, seemed shaken by the revelation. It was wrong. It was all wrong. How could his government back home even think about going along with this?

The flare spent its energy and floated back to earth, plunging Castillo into darkness once again. He looked eastward. Dawn’s orange fingers clenched the horizon. Suddenly, the sound of approaching footsteps within the trench prompted him to grab his rifle and hop from his perch. Within seconds, the glowing ember from a cigarette appeared and bobbed its way toward him. The burning fag dropped to the ground and the face of Captain Klaus Wenger, the German officer assigned to Castillo’s unit, materialized.

Wenger was an impressive figure, taller than the average German, so much so that he was forced to take extra care to avoid drawing sniper fire. He wore a blue officer’s field cap and uniform, and although Castillo couldn’t see much detail in the dim morning haze, he knew that the black jackboots Wenger had on were polished to a high shine. How Wenger managed to preserve that shine while wallowing in the trenches was a mystery to the soldiers in his command, but nevertheless, it was a source of great pride among them.

"Buenos días, Castillo, Wenger said. Wie gehts?"

Castillo saluted. He paused to think. "Es geht sehr gut, Herr Kapitan."

Wenger laughed and patted him on the shoulder. You’re not going to fool Tommy with that accent. How about we just stick to Spanish?

Castillo smiled. "Bien."

He liked Wenger. Not only did the German officer treat Castillo and his friends with respect, but he also insisted on conversing with them in Spanish. There were rumors that Wenger was a banker before the war. Regardless of his former occupation, he seemed to care deeply for his men and desired to get every one of them out of this hellish mess in one piece.

Do you think there will be an attack, sir? Castillo asked him.

I don’t think we have to worry, Wenger answered. Our boys in the Vimy sector to the north are the ones who need to be concerned. It’s no secret that a major British offensive is expected there.

The big German’s words encouraged Castillo. The thought of being caught in the middle of an enemy attack made him nauseous, especially since learning that the enemy trenches across from where he now stood happened to be occupied by a battalion of Scottish Highlanders. Castillo had heard stories from seasoned German soldiers about the Tommies who wore skirts into battle, tales of their sadistic ruthlessness and unwillingness to take prisoners.

Hushed voices approached from the right. Both men turned and watched two grey apparitions walk toward them. Castillo recognized the lead figure immediately. It was Colonel Ruiz, and he was being shadowed by his aid, Corporal Trevino.

Castillo saluted. Ruiz glared disparagingly at him and then turned to Wenger, probably expecting the same salute from the German. He didn’t get it. Wenger nodded instead.

Good morning, Colonel, Wenger said. I trust you slept well?

Ruiz scowled. Please remind your superiors that I require a washbasin filled with clean water and a fresh towel each morning.

Castillo cringed. He imagined Wenger reaching out and crushing the cocky Ruiz like a bug. But Wenger simply smiled and said, I’ll be sure to do it.

And when will the test be conducted? Ruiz demanded. We were supposed to complete this exercise two days ago.

Wenger retrieved his pocket watch and held it close to his eyes. We launch at 08:30. He looked back at Ruiz. Are you and your men ready?

Ruiz jutted out his chin. We are.

Very well, then. Have them go to the dugout and begin loading the shells and mortars onto the ammunition cart. I’ll send a squad of soldiers to assist them.

Ruiz hesitated, visibly taken aback by being told what to do by someone of inferior rank. Finally, with humiliated reluctance, he ordered Castillo and Trevino to find the others and get to work. Both men saluted Ruiz and turned to leave.

From somewhere in the direction of the enemy lines came a muted thump. Then, the thump morphed into a roar that sounded like the approach of a massive freight train.

Take cover! Wenger shouted.

He shoved Ruiz against the front wall of the trench. Castillo and Trevino ducked and cowered beneath their helmets. A tremendous explosion just outside the trench showered the soldiers with massive amounts of dirt, metal fragments, and decayed body parts. Another shell burst followed, then another. The concussion from the bombardment knocked the wind out of Castillo. He struggled for breath.

Wenger jumped to his feet. Quick! To the dugout!

Ruiz scurried for the shelter like a sewer rat. Wenger stayed behind to assist a wounded soldier. Castillo, his ears buzzing, grabbed Trevino by the arm. The arm detached and Trevino’s lacerated body toppled toward him like a string puppet. Castillo dropped the limb and scrambled twenty yards to the dugout entrance. The second wave of shells hit just as Wenger pushed the wounded man and Castillo through the tarp.

The bunker was crammed with soldiers who listened in silence as the earth convulsed above them. Soil fell like powder from the beam-supported ceiling and the glow from the bunker’s tiny kerosene lantern flickered with each violent shudder.

Wenger shot Castillo an apologetic look. I guess I was wrong.

Castillo forced a smile and began to silently recite the Holy Rosary. He did this for ninety straight minutes while the enemy barrage crashed and roared above him in an unbroken maelstrom of noise and chaos. He prayed that a wayward enemy shell wouldn’t find the dugout entrance and entomb all of them for eternity. He also prayed that nobody would accidentally knock over the shells stacked along the back wall of the dugout, especially the black ones painted with red skulls and crossbones. Castillo harbored no desire to become an accidental test subject for Germany’s ultimate weapon.

The air in the dugout stank of urine, cordite, and body odor. Castillo glanced at Wenger. The German officer knelt stone-faced on one knee, staring straight ahead at the tarp that covered the dugout entrance. Next to him, the soldier he had helped earlier lay lifeless in a pool of blood.

The bombardment abruptly ceased. Wenger reacted immediately.

Everyone to your positions!

Soldiers poured from the dugout and lined the narrow fire step of the trench. Castillo waited for the crowd inside the shelter to thin and then made for the exit himself. He saw Ruiz, who was glued to a chair next to the dugout wall, his upper body rocking back and forth like a pendulum. He babbled like a crazy man. Foamy spittle dribbled from the corners of his mouth.

Leave him, Wenger shouted. The big Prussian stood tall in the doorway. He’s shell-shocked. He’ll be of no use to us.

Castillo grabbed his rifle and exited the dugout with Wenger right behind him. Wenger went to the right while Castillo turned left and squeezed his way through the crowded trench until he found an open spot on the fire step. He wedged his body between two German soldiers, both considerably younger than him. They appeared frightened out of their wits.

A green flare burst high over No Man’s Land. It was followed by a faint chorus of whistles.

They’re coming over to see us, boys, Wenger’s voice resonated throughout the trench. Weapons ready.

No sooner had the last word left his lips than a blood-chilling cheer went up from the enemy’s position. The distinct, menacing drone of bagpipes followed, as did the introductory bursts of a creeping artillery barrage that would lead the advance of the enemy infantry.

Flares calling for artillery support shot up all along the German front line. A British sixteen-pound shell slammed into the entrance of the dugout Castillo and the others had recently evacuated. The dugout vanished along with a large section of trench. Castillo, ducking to deflect the storm of dirt and debris that rained down on him, gasped at the destruction. He wondered if Wenger was dead. He knew Ruiz was.

The rattle of machine guns, the thump of mortars, and explosions of artillery created an atmosphere of pure chaos. The enemy’s creeping barrage reached the German trench. Castillo squeezed tightly against his earthen wall as the metal storm passed overhead. He felt sick to his stomach. Perhaps if a shell landed next to him, it would put him out of his misery here and now. Better to die from a direct hit than by a Highlander’s bayonet to the gut.

But the barrage spared Castillo and the others near him. Castillo climbed back onto the fire step and peered across No Man’s Land. A long line of tin hats and kilts were advancing at a steady pace toward the German line. The sight of those approaching bayonets, combined with the screams and cries of the wounded around him, contributed to the burning flow of bile that now crept into Castillo’s throat. A bullet zipped past his head and punched the embankment behind him. He ducked reflexively. Another bullet struck the forehead of the young German to his right.

The bagpipes grew louder. The tack-tack-tack of German machine guns now commenced, dispensing death to the Brits. Castillo knew the Prussians were reputed to be an extraordinarily brave lot. Just how brave he had failed to realize until this very moment.

The soldiers surrounding Castillo fired their rifles as fast as they could, their collective bolt actions sounding like a gigantic telegraph machine. Castillo rose to his feet again and glanced over the parapet. The ground in front of the trench was strewn with the torn bodies of the enemy’s first attack wave. A second wave was closing in, with four more waves behind it. The Highlanders advanced calmly as if on a Sunday stroll. German ordnance continued to exact an awful toll on them, but as one Highlander fell, another immediately took his place.

Once the second wave was within ten yards of the German trench, a great hurrah filled the air and they charged. Castillo emptied his clip into them. He then sunk down on the fire step to grapple with the bayonet still holstered in the scabbard on his belt. In the fear and confusion of the moment, he had forgotten to attach it to his rifle. Suddenly, the young soldier to his left screamed and fell backward to the floor of the trench, a bayonet jammed into his chest. The British soldier to whom it belonged, a big heavyset fellow with a wicked bullet graze across an exposed left knee, followed him down.

Castillo drew his bayonet. The Brit placed his boot on his victim’s stomach and extracted his blade from the ribcage, then turned on Castillo. Castillo, his adrenalin flowing, leapt from the fire step and landed directly on top of his enemy. The blow knocked the rifle from the big man’s hands. Castillo, now half-crazed and hanging from the man’s neck, plunged his bayonet into his enemy’s side and advanced it as far as it would go. The soldier let out a repulsive groan, fixed disbelieving eyes upon Castillo, and abruptly collapsed without a fight.

More shouts. Castillo rolled off the dead man and looked up to see two Highlanders rounding the corner of the trench, one of them with his pistol drawn. A panicked German soldier close to them threw his hands up in surrender, but was shot point blank in the face. The Highlander then turned his weapon on Castillo.

Castillo stood up to run, but was stunned by a tremendous blow to his steel helmet. His world flashed white. He felt helplessly weak and fell backward. Color and detail returned briefly to his eyes, just long enough for him to make out the two soldiers who now stood over him. One of them raised the butt of his rifle above Castillo’s head.

His final thought wasn’t about home, nor was it about his comrades. It consisted of a single image, a harbinger of evil, a symbol destined to haunt the civilized world long after he had passed on to the next one. It flashed suddenly and brightly in his failing mind. Then, as quickly as it appeared, the image of the red skull and crossbones vanished, and Castillo slipped into a dreamless sleep.

Chapter 1

Arras, France

Edward Haig rolled out of his hotel bed at 5:53 A.M. and stumbled to the bathroom. He snatched the smartphone from the counter next to the sink and turned off the alarm. With his vision still blurred from sleep, he turned on the faucet and splashed cold water on his face. A union machinist from York, England, Haig had become accustomed to rising early all of his life. Yet at forty-two years of age, the interval between getting out of bed and becoming a fully-functional human being seemed to be getting longer and longer. He grabbed a towel from the hanger and wiped his eyes, then returned to the bedroom where his sons, Jonathan and Peter, still lay asleep in a shared bed. Twelve-year-old Jonathan had Edward’s bristly red hair and freckles, while the ten-year-old’s dark mane and complexion matched those of Haig’s wife. Haig stared at their inert forms for several minutes, his face beaming with a father’s love. They were his pride and joy, his greatest accomplishment in life.

He had planned this trip for years. Haig and his own father had talked about doing it for over a decade, to visit western France and the great World War One battlefields where so many had fought and so many had died. It wasn’t just a historical fascination with the conflict, nor was it because the family bore the same last name of the famous British World War One general, Sir Douglas Haig. Edward Haig’s great-grandfather had fought in France during the war and had died there. His remains were interred in a British military cemetery somewhere north of the Somme River. Haig’s father had always wanted to find the grave and seed Edward’s brain with this small but significant piece of Haig family history.

Unfortunately, life intervened and the pilgrimage was mothballed. When the senior Haig died from lung cancer at the young age of sixty-six, Edward vowed to take his own sons to France to locate the grave and honor the memories of both his father and his great-grandfather. He figured he’d better do it before the boys became teenagers, when friends and females would take precedence over a road trip with their father.

Haig slipped on his pants and a navy t-shirt, then grabbed his room key and headed down to the hotel lobby to get a morning paper and a cup of tea. Forty-five minutes later, he returned to the room, took a shower, and woke up the boys. The guide would pick them up in one hour and Haig wanted to be sure the boys ate a good breakfast before they left. It was going to be a long day.

Their itinerary would first take them south to the town of Albert, the staging area for the infamous Battle of the Somme that killed and maimed close to a million men. They would spread out across the vast battlefield and spend the day visiting the sites and memorials that dotted the sleepy landscape. Then, on their return trip to Arras, they would stop by the Tull Wood Cemetery, the burial place of Arthur Haig.

The van pulled into the hotel’s circular drive at precisely 8 A.M. A short, paunchy fellow with a worn tweed jacket and matching cap emerged from behind the wheel. He left the engine running and walked into the hotel holding a sign with Haig’s name on it. Haig approached the man and introduced himself. He noted that the guide seemed to be keyed up, like a thoroughbred itching to bust out of the gate.

Gregory Jarvis, the man said as he extended his hand to Haig. He then stepped over and shook the boys’ hands.

What part of Britain you from? Jarvis asked.

The north, Haig replied. York.

I’m originally from Leeds myself. Came to France about ten years ago and fell in love with the countryside. Decided to stay and try to make a living here. I’m a history fanatic, so leading private tours for English-speaking tourists visiting this part of the country seemed the perfect way to do it.

Haig could sense the man loved his line of work. Today’s tour ought to be a good one.

Shall we go? Jarvis inquired. He waved his arm toward the hotel exit. Haig and the boys followed him to the van. The boys piled into the back while Haig sat next to Jarvis in front.

Jarvis buckled his seat belt and turned to face Jonathan and his brother.

Just a reminder, he said. When we’re out there, don’t pick up any souvenirs you may see lying on the ground. There are lots of sharp, rusty edges that can cut you, not to mention live ammunition that occasionally surfaces after all these years. It can be extremely dangerous, so please, for your own safety, don’t touch.

Did you hear him, boys? Haig reiterated. No touching.

They nodded back at their father.

The May morning was pleasantly cool, with a light breeze blowing in from the east. The van travelled along D929 toward Bapaume for several miles, then began a medley of detours down well-worn country roads, hopping between points of interest. They stopped for tea at Ulster Tower, the grand memorial to the Irish soldiers who fought and died so bravely during the first day of the Somme offensive, toured the preserved trenches at Beaumont Hamel, hiked through Delville Wood, the site of some of the most vicious hand-to-hand fighting of the entire Great War, and stood on the lip of the Lochnagar Crater, a gigantic hole in the earth created by thirty tons of explosives that detonated within a mine shaft extending deep beneath the German lines. At one point in the day, Jarvis turned the van onto a trail of sand and grass next to an old French farmhouse. Situated on the edge of the field across from the house was a four foot high pile of rusted objects stacked neatly in a pyramid configuration. Haig recognized them immediately. Artillery shells.

He pointed at them. What’s the deal with those?

Jarvis slowed the van. Unexploded ordnance. Can you believe it? The war ended a century ago and farmers still plough up tons of the stuff every year. The French Army Bomb Disposal Unit comes by weekly to take it away.

A voice came from the backseat. It was Jonathan. Do the farmers ever get blown up?

Jarvis looked at him through the rearview mirror and chuckled. Every once in a while, one explodes and someone gets hurt. For the most part, though, the farmers know how to work their fields to avoid accidents like that.

It was Peter’s turn. Are there any deer out here?

At ten minutes past 5 P.M., they completed the tour and started back toward Arras. In the eight hours that had elapsed, they had managed to cover only about fifty percent of the battlefield, but it was enough. Despite his well-cushioned shoes, Haig’s feet were starting to ache. Jonathan and Peter were moving slower as well.

Fifteen minutes out of Bapaume, Jarvis slowed the van and turned east onto another dirt road. It came to a dead end at the entrance to a large cemetery bordered on one side by a piney copse. The cemetery was surrounded by a low red brick wall and harbored an impressive white granite monument in the shape of a cross that stood tall in the center of the grounds. It also contained row after row of bleached marble headstones, six hundred and twelve in all. Haig took a deep breath. The magnitude of sacrifice was overwhelming.

The group piled out of the van for their final stop of the day. Upon passing through the cemetery gate, the kids immediately ran to the stone monument and climbed atop its thick base. Haig started to tell them to get off, but Jarvis stopped him.

They’re okay, he smiled. They’re not hurting anything.

Haig looked at him. I’d like them to show just a little reverence.

I believe they are, Jarvis replied, nodding toward the monument. Both boys were now on their knees, intently reading the names etched across the base, the names of over eight hundred missing soldiers whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefield, the names of young men who were part of a generation forever lost.

Jarvis continued. I checked the records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Your great-grandfather’s grave is located here. I jotted down the plot number, but I seem to have misplaced it.

That’s no problem, Haig replied. He pointed to the first row of markers. We can just split up and begin working our way back. It shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Jarvis motioned back to the van. If you’ll excuse me for a moment, I need to make a quick phone call to the office, and then I’ll be right back to help you search.

Jarvis took off and Haig waved at Jonathan and Peter. Boys, come over here and help me start looking for your great-grandfather’s headstone.

Both boys ran to their father’s side, playing a game of improvised tag along the way. Peter tugged on his father’s arm and began hopping in place. Father, I’ve got to pee.

Haig did a swift survey of the surroundings. You can go to the woods, but hurry back.

Peter tore out through the cemetery gate.

Jonathan, Haig began. Start at the back and work your way toward me. I’ll start here and work toward you. Together we should be able to find it. Remember, his name was Arthur.

Jonathan dove into his assignment without hesitation. Haig walked in front of the first row of markers, noting how clean and well-preserved they were. The green grass carpeting the graves was mowed to perfection, and yellow roses, sea-blue delphiniums, and red oriental poppies painted the bases of the headstones with magnificent color. Haig nodded approvingly. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certainly did an outstanding job in maintaining all of the cemeteries they had visited today, but it had really gone out of its way with this one. It was as though they knew he and his boys were coming.

Haig finished perusing the first row of markers and began on the second one. Then the third one. And the fourth. He had just started down the fifth row when he heard Jonathan’s voice. I think I found it.

Haig spotted Jonathan standing in front of a marker located just to the right of the monument. He cut through the rows and approached his son.

What did you find? he asked.

The boy pointed at the headstone in front of him. The inscription beneath a battalion insignia read:

Lieutenant

Arthur Haig

1st Battalion Cameron Highlanders

2nd March 1917 Age 23

We Shall Meet Again

In The Morning

A flood of emotion hit Edward Haig all at once. There it was. The end of a quest. Another dream to check off the list. He gazed at the marker, history flowing through his head. Jonathan stood next to him, saying nothing. Haig felt the tears coming, but he fought them back. It wasn’t that he had found the grave of a long lost ancestor. It was more than that. It was his father. Haig missed him deeply. We shall meet again in the morning. Haig hoped to God the inscription rang true to its word.

Jarvis’ voice interrupted his thoughts. Did you find it? The guide was at the front gate.

Sure did, Haig answered. Jonathan found it.

Excellent, Jarvis replied. Take all the time you need. We’re in no hurry. I’ll be in the van.

Haig pulled a sheet of paper and a piece of drawing charcoal from his travel vest, then knelt down in front of his great-grandfather’s marker and proceeded

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