My friends, on February 9, 2019, I will be launching the first volume of my new novel LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING at Amazon. It’s a kind of zombie-apocalypse military action thriller with an emotional side to it, as usual. Here’s the blurb:
In a world devastated by a rampant maddening disease, Lieutenant J.J. Berger takes his Special Operations team into Southern Portugal to search for his lost comrades. His path will cross with a mysterious woman and her little daughter, escaping from their captors. They might hold the key to a better world.
Today, I start a new phase, that of recruiting my Launch Team. The team is made up of volunteers that will receive the whole book a month in advance and complete tasks like: download it for free when the time comes and post an honest review at the Amazon book page. Anyone willing to do that, please subscribe to the Launch Team list by clicking here:
For now, let me give you a taste of the book. In three posts I will be showing you the Introduction (Chapter 0), Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. They are all independent – you can read them as you wish. I hope you like it!
LAURA AND THE SHADOW KING
For a second it felt like paradise. Maybe more than a second. I could feel the sun burning against my skin and the breeze taking away the heat, and the sea chanting nearby. I’d taken a swim in the Atlantic Ocean a few minutes before and felt the salt drying on me. The fresh Coke in my hand took care of the thirst. I looked around. The island was like a mountain in the middle of the sea. It was green and lush. The city crouched against the amphitheater-like geography, culminating on the harbor down where all the vessels rested in safety. The sky was clear and the sea was calm. The island didn’t have many beaches, but the pontoons around the bay allowed us to dive and swim in the open sea.
Madeira Island used to be Portuguese. It surged out of the Atlantic Ocean at about the same latitude as Casablanca, eight hundred miles southwest of Lisbon. Its remoteness had spared her three hundred thousand peaceful inhabitants, but now another two hundred thousand or so not-so-gentle folk were squeezed in with them.
I looked over my sunglasses at the orderly in fatigues.
‘LT, you’re called to Major Dalton, sir.’
I sighed. I was supposed to have the whole week to myself. It hadn’t lasted two whole days.
‘ASAP, sir,’ continued the young man.
‘Has a nuclear bomb fallen somewhere?’
‘Maybe a carrier sank or something?’
‘Not to my knowledge, sir.’
‘Then don’t ASAP me, Coulter. I was promised absolute R&R for a week. Major Dalton can fucking wait.’
‘Just doing my job, sir.’
‘I’m supposed to impress upon you the urgency, sir. Exact quote, sir.’
‘Coulter, seriously, fuck off. I’ll be there in a few minutes.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He saluted and went away.
I sighed and laid down my head on the chair once more. Just for thirty seconds. I looked around, gathering the energy to get up. All around the pool of what used to be, and still felt like, a five-star hotel, the servicemen and women of the Coalition were relaxing as they could, drinking strange cocktails and laughing at each other’s jokes.
I noticed Paige Drexler in a corner. She was showing that perfect body of hers on a lounge chair with her back toward the sun, her bikini lines branding her beautiful skin. She seemed relaxed, but I could tell the rest of the story just by looking at her. Beneath her sunglasses, she was passed out. Probably drunk as well.
I called the waiter, signaling for the check. He came around with the piece of paper and a pen.
‘What room, please?’
‘212.’ I didn’t have to pay the bill, but I picked a couple of notes from my wallet and gave them to him. ‘Listen, see that woman over there?’
‘Miss Drexler, sir?’
‘Yes. She’ll be sick if she stays like that in the sun. Would you please take her to her room?’
The waiter took the currency. ‘Yes, sir. Of course, sir.’
‘Don’t take too long.’
‘Of course, sir.’
I got up and put on my shirt and slippers. As I passed by Paige’s chair, I noticed she had a new tattoo. On her shoulder blade. A Navy SEAL trident inside a heart. Of course . . .
I went to my room and put on the uniform before I went to find Dalton.
The hotel had been designed by a legendary architect, the same that designed the capital of Brazil, as it turned out. It rested near the ocean, up the cliff. Next to it, designed by the same architect, was a strange-looking cuneiform building that used to be the casino. Now it was the Coalition’s HQ, filled with offices, desks, desk jockeys and the like. They made a heliport on the top for Little Birds, and another on the gardens for heavier helicopters. Blackhawks and Ospreys were always coming and going from there, as well as black Escalades, brown Humvies and other cars coming and going from the parking lots. Other hotels were bases for all kinds of officials, lab rats and other military personnel, so the activity was constant.
Who would have known a few years prior that the island would look like this now?
The first outbreak happened six and a half years before, somewhere in Africa. It had spread fast and been deadly, killing about 38% of the world’s population. It lasted for almost a year before a vaccine was found, and that was enough to collapse the fabric of our civilization. Energy faltered, then water, then everything else. The climate changes going on, including the drought in the south and the rising seas everywhere, didn’t make anything any easier. Still, the disease had been defeated and mostly eradicated.
It wasn’t finished though. A second strain surged out of Asia almost immediately. It wasn’t airborne as the first, so it was less deadly, but it spread through bodily fluids and infected wounds, and didn’t kill the subjects but made them psychotic and extremely aggressive. The real damage had been done by the first strain, and chaos was the norm by then, but this strain made reconstruction basically impossible. Those infected wandered around in the wilderness. They were called zombies at first, but actually they behaved more like apes, violent apes. Still, they wandered around almost everywhere, eating almost anything and competing with other wild animals.
Civilization survived. It fled to the colder places, where the virus didn’t spread well. People survived around Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Scandinavia, Scotland, Greenland, etc. But that’s mostly it. The US collapsed, as well as Europe, Africa, Central and South Asia, Central and South America, Australia . . . Most of the world.
At first, the countries tried to take care of themselves, but soon it became obvious that only an international effort could help the situation. Then the main defense was assured by the UN, but soon NATO had to take over, using its strength and military organization to protect and evacuate huge numbers of people. After that, other countries asked for help and the organization expanded to Australia, Japan, Korea, and India. China and Russia tried to fend for themselves, and we didn’t know much of what happened to them. Most other countries, however, joined what became known as The Coalition.
We hadn’t given up. Several Forward Operating Bases had been set up all over Europe, supported by more than thirty bases in isolated islands on the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. Little by little we had been cleaning up territory and reclaiming sovereignty. Still, we all knew the score: we were no closer to finding a cure for the disease and, without one, the only real alternative was containment.
I identified myself at the entrance and went up to the last floor of HQ, where I had to identify myself again before they let me into Dalton’s office. He was the SOCOM C.O. on the island, and so, my C.O. We had a multitude of teams that went into the wilderness for a multitude of objectives. My team’s specialty was contact with local militias, and I expected this mission to be no different.
After being announced, I knocked on the door.
I went in and saluted him. He pointed to the chair and I sat.
‘How are you, JJ?’
‘Sorry I took you off the pool.’
‘I need you to go in.’
‘No shit. Where?’
‘Southern Portugal. Your territory.’
‘Further north. We have a team missing.’
I frowned. That was unusual. ‘A whole team?’
‘A whole team.’
‘Fournier and the Belgians.’
I frowned even more. ‘Those guys are pretty good. How long have they been dark?’
That was a lot. Communications weren’t as smooth as before. Satellites and satellite communications had failed maintenance for years, so there were a lot of flaws. Still, southern Portugal wasn’t the worst place in the world, and not too far from the ocean. They should have been able to contact somebody.
‘What were they doing out there?’
‘Can’t tell you.’
I raised my eyebrow. What the hell did he mean by that? ‘You can’t tell me?’
‘Something’s going on. You need to report to General Rajani up in N6.’
My eyes widened. Hemal Rajani was a top-notch General, one of the top brass in SOCOM. What was he doing in Lisbon?
‘Yeah. Your team here?’
‘Well, get to PS and take the transport to N6 at 1500. You’ll be briefed over there, but you’ll probably be dropped in Alentejo tonight. So, get geared up.’
I nodded. Then I had an idea. ‘I could use an extra hand, if you can spare it.’
He looked at me, annoyed. ‘I’m not sure I have a lot of extra hands. Who did you have in mind?’
He frowned. ‘The English girl? Are you sure?’
‘What the hell, JJ? Is she even trained?’
‘She worked with Davis, you know that.’
‘Yes. And I never questioned it because I knew they were a pair, and they were doing their own shit and Davis knew what he was doing. But, damn . . .’
‘I know what I’m doing.’
‘But is she well? She lost her whole crew.’
‘She’s upset, but she deserves to get out there as soon as possible. She deserves a chance.’
‘I thought you didn’t even like Davis.’
‘I respected him. He was one of the best. He was one of us.’
‘You sure you want her?’
‘She’s a good operative.’
‘I don’t know who trained her. Do you know who trained her?’
‘No-one knows. Black ops somewhere. But she’s good. I’ve seen her out there. She has the best eyes I’ve ever seen.’
Dalton smirked. ‘You mean, green?’
I smiled a little. The bastard . . .
‘I mean she sees everything. She spots trouble before anyone else. And she’s smart. And she knows languages. I can use her. Morris is not coming back for a while.’
‘Okay, take her. Just don’t be late. 1500 out of PS.’ He picked up the phone and punched the numbers. ‘I’ll get you a Blackhawk. Get a steak or something, get Drexler and get ready. I want you downstairs at 1300. Now, get going.’
I went to the hotel’s front desk and waved at a receptionist.
‘Hey, Mario. I need your help.’
‘Of course, sir.’
‘I need you to get the master key and unlock a room for me.’
He seemed uncomfortable. ‘A room, sir?’
‘Just do it, Mario. Major Dalton’s orders.’
‘Yes, sir. Which room?’
‘103, I think.’
The man picked up a card and we boarded the elevator. Mario was very uncomfortable.
‘I’m going to leave on a mission today, Mario. One of my team members is drunk and asleep. I need to get her ready.’
‘Yes, sir.’ He seemed satisfied with this.
When we got to the room, we knocked a few times, but, as predicted, no-one answered. So, Mario opened the door.
Paige was on the bed, still in her bikini, sound asleep.
‘Paige. Paige.’ She didn’t react, so I got closer. I sat on the bed and shook her a little bit, and the next thing I know I had a 9 mm pointed at my nose. Jesus, she was fast! But I was faster and I was sober, so I rolled to my knees and up, twisted her wrist, took the gun, and she immediately rolled over, jumped, and was up and ready on the other side of the bed.
‘Hey! It’s me. It’s J.J. Berger.’
She finally recognized me. ‘King? Bloody hell!’ She felt dizzy for a moment and had to grab the wall.
‘Hey. Take it easy,’ I said.
‘What the fuck are you doing here?’
‘I need you to get ready. We have a mission.’
She was surprised. ‘A mission? Me? What the hell do you need me for?’
‘I’m a man short.’
She still didn’t believe it. ‘Why me? I’ve been out of it for weeks.’
‘I don’t know. Major’s orders. Come on, we’re having lunch. Downstairs in twenty.’
‘King, for Heaven’s sake . . .’
‘Wheels up at 1300, so hurry up.’
‘Fuck. What time is it?’
‘1215. Let’s go.’
‘Fuck, King, give a girl a break, will you? Let me powder my nose and shit. I’ll be down in twenty.’
‘Don’t be late.’
‘Go to hell.’
Twenty minutes was enough for me to have a long hot shower (my last hot shower for a while, I figured), put on my fatigues, get packed and go downstairs to the restaurant—a large hall with huge glass windows with a great view over the ocean where officers of several original armies were starting to have lunch.
Paige showed up two minutes late, just as I was starting to get annoyed. She looked clean and ready, dressed in Portuguese army fatigues, a bit greener than mine, with her sleeves rolled up above the elbows. She used to have shoulder length red hair, but after Davis’ death she cut it short. She also wore a black US Navy cap and black cut-off combat gloves. She saluted me American style, probably something the SEALs taught her.
‘Sit down,’ I said. ‘You want a steak?’
She took her cap off and sat. ‘Sure.’
Madeira Island had limited agriculture because it was so tiny and rocky. Still, the Azores had been isolated as well, and even though much of its beef went to the Canadian colonies, we had a regular provision of meat, milk and cheese here on the island. Madeira even had a brewery that produced some light beer and soda. So, I ordered a couple of steaks and two orange-flavored sodas that had barely any orange in them.
I looked at Paige. She looked okay, if not for the black around the eyes.
She leaned back and looked at me, too. ‘You used to be an NCO before you were an officer?’ she asked me.
‘Field promotion, yes. About a year ago.’
‘Good for you. So, whose idea was it to get me an assignment?’
‘Dalton’s, far as I know.’
‘I bet. Does he even know my name?’
‘He has a file on you.’
She smirked. ‘He does not.’
‘You worked with Davis, you think he wouldn’t have a file? He probably feels you should start earning your keep again.’
‘And he puts me in Shadow team? I think not.’
The waiters brought the steaks with fake mashed potatoes and the sodas. The mashed potatoes had probably expired, but the meat was enough for me, and they’d found onions God-knows-where, which was brilliant. We started eating.
‘Bon appétit,’ she said.
After taking a few bites of some really good beef, I turned to her again. ‘Look, what I need to know is that your mind is in this thing. Is it?’
She looked at me. ‘Yes. It is.’
‘How about the rest of you?’
She almost laughed. ‘You tell me. You took a good look.’
I clenched my teeth, irritated.
She stopped smiling. ‘I can handle it. I’ve been working out. A bit too much, actually.’
She hadn’t, I could tell.
‘I’ll be alright.’
I stopped eating and looked deep into her eyes. ‘I need you to have my back, Drexler. Can you handle it?’
She stopped eating too and looked back deep into my eyes. ‘I’ll have your back, .’ And she was serious. ‘Thank you,’ she added.
That was good enough for me. I wiped my mouth and prepared to leave. ‘Good,’ I said, getting up. ‘Let’s grab some bananas, we need to go.’
She looked at her steak, half-eaten on the plate, and hesitated. Finally, she picked it up with her fingers, put the beef in her mouth like a dog, and got up, ready to go.
I laughed and turned away.
A few minutes later we flew along the eastern coast of the island on a Blackhawk toward PS. I looked at Paige sitting across from me and could see she was nervous. She had her suppressed German-made G36 rifle on her lap, the mag off, and was pulling the bolt from time to time. She had her cap pulled to her ears and her expression was troubled. When I saw her look outside and pull the bolt a few more times, I looked behind my shoulder and saw we were going past the Funchal International Airport, a scary one-runway-airport surrounded by sea on three sides and a mountain on the other. We called it FUX, for short. That’s where most of the planes coming in would land. Mostly people coming to help in our efforts or survivors collected from the mainland. We even had a regular flight to and from Canada. It was also heavily defended and scrutinized. No-one with signs of infection would pass those gates or the guards with the .50s on the checkpoints.
It had also been where, a few weeks before, an unsuspicious passenger coming in from somewhere in southern Spain had detonated a powerful bomb and killed Paige’s whole team, including Matt Davis, her fiancé, along with twenty-three others. She had been there but at a distance, and she had been thrown and dislocated a shoulder, but remained untouched otherwise. Physically, I mean.
No-one could understand what that bomb was about. There was no claim from anyone, and no-one knew of any terrorist groups capable or willing to do something like that. It disturbed us all.