When a series of high-profile deaths are found to be well-constructed assassinations, the Cover Eyes team is tasked with bringing the killer to justice.
The Sixth Day
Be motivated like the falcon, hunt gloriously.
The Nubian Desert
Seven Months Ago
The desert tent was sumptuous and meant to impress, but it was not wasteful. Spiked into the shifting sands, its billowing fabric roof dipped and swayed in the desert breeze. Inside the tent, a long table was centered on a wooden platform covered with a red-and-orange oriental rug. Five falcons with leather cords on their legs and suits of black armor across their bodies perched on the backs of chairs, silent and watchful.
The air was scented with cardamom and grapes from the festive lunch the four men and two women had just enjoyed, mixing agreeably with the seared desert air around them; the quiet strains of Pink Floyd played in the background. Champagne cooled in silver buckets, awaiting the revelations to come.
They spoke among themselves, occasionally laughing as they finished the sweet cream custard mixed with dates and almonds in small golden bowls. They laid their linen napkins beside their plates and drank the last superb bottle of 2010 Chateau L’Evangile French Bordeaux.
Conversation turned to the falcons and how very well-behaved the five were, all their attention on their master, who sat at the head of the table.
Their master, the host of the party, was Roman Ardelean, an Englishman of Romanian descent, in his prime, tall, broad-shouldered, a beak of a nose, dark hair, and eyes like smudges of coal. He pushed back his chair. “It is time, ladies, gentlemen. Come with me, and you will see the capabilities of our new army.”
Each of the six knew this was to be a demonstration and a celebration of what they were financing—a drone army—yet none knew exactly what to expect. It would be a lovely surprise for all of them, Roman knew. The investors—the Money, as he thought of them—followed him out into the desert, blinking in the blazing sun and immediately sweating. Behind the tent, twenty yards away, was a line of folding chairs. On each chair was a set of ear guards and large eye shields.
Roman watched the Money take their seats, then turned his back and slipped a tiny stamp on his tongue, felt it melt, tasted the fleeting metallic hit. The microdose of LSD, a special version made for him by his twin, Radu, would help keep him calm and focused. It would also make the colors of the coming display more dramatic and the acrid desert air soften against his face, but no one needed to know that. He slipped the small box where he kept his tabs back into the pocket of his cargo pants and looked again at the Money. All were dressed as befitted a desert spa jaunt—crisp new earth tones and neck scarves, all provided by Roman’s company, Radulov Industries. The Money blended into the desert, looked like they were meant to be there, which Roman found amusing. But camouflage was important right now, for all of them.
Once they were settled, Roman stood in front of them, hands behind his back. He was a clever man, a charming man, a leader who knew exactly what he was doing. He cleared his throat, met each set of eyes, and began to speak. His clear, commanding voice was exactly what the Money needed to hear, just as his tall, fit body was what they needed to see.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I applaud all of you. You are patriots and visionaries. You all know what will become of us if the spread of radical Islam isn’t halted. You have envisioned this future, so you were ready to place your resources in my hands to build a drone army. I gladly took on this challenge.
“What you’re about to witness is the result of my efforts. The drones are the latest in personal defense stealth technology. They are my design, technologically so advanced not even our military has this capability yet. Despite these advancements, they are easily manned by even the most inexperienced operator. You don’t need pilots with thousands of sorties behind them to navigate these babies.
“They also have internal gyroscopes allowing them to maintain a constant horizon, which means they cannot be accidentally crashed. You can hand the controls to ten-year-olds, and they’ll be able to fly them with ease. Of course, most of the ten-year-olds we know are so advanced with their computer games that this might seem boring to them.” Pause, laughter all around.
“But not the children where we’re sending these beauties. No, they have nothing to help defend themselves against the constant encroachment of the terrorists. Nothing but leftover weapons from failed wars, guns that barely work, if at all. Thanks to all of you, we’re about to change that.
“It is our goal to stop the incessant march of radical Islam across Africa, across these small disadvantaged countries with no hope of fighting it. We are going to arm the people so they can defend themselves. What Britain and the United States refuse to do, we will do for them. Covertly, quietly, and most importantly, cost-effectively. I will have no overruns on project costs, no excuses, no delays. When you decided to go with Radulov, I guaranteed the massive drone army would be built. And this is my promise, my investment in this amazing venture.
“This is what all of you wanted, what all of you agreed to, and why you hired me to make it a reality.
“And yes, everything you’re about to see here is beyond classified. I am going to pass out nondisclosure agreements for you to sign. This will assure me that even if you want to talk about these weapons, you cannot without disclosing your involvement in their development. None of your own investors would regard this with a favorable eye, to say the least, nor would the government. Call it an insurance policy.”
Whispers and outright hostility swept through the group.
Roman’s partner, Corinthian Jones, Lord Barstow, late of Her Majesty’s Security Services and now a consultant for the Crown, was shaking his head. “Roman, do you think it is necessary? As you said, I brought these six patriots to you to build this drone army in the first place. Of course they will keep silent about their involvement.”
Be quiet, you old fool, I know what I’m doing. “My lord, I’m sure you’ll understand when I say this is for my protection, as well as all of yours. We all know what happened when the Americans tried to arm the Contras. It turned into the scandal of the century, and a patriot had to fall on his sword. I have no desire to be that man. As such, I’d hardly fail to protect my interests on such a large investment, and neither would you. And as you know, this is a very large investment, for all of us.
“Now, we need to get started before the sun sets. Please sign the nondisclosure agreements, pass them back to me, put on your ear guards and goggles, and let’s get this show started.”
There was still grumbling, particularly from Paulina Vittorini, the Madonna bitch, as he thought of her, but finally even she signed the agreement. He wondered idly if he was the richest among the six of them. His firm, Radulov Industries, manufactured cybersecurity software that resided on almost every modern computer in the world. Apple and Microsoft now shipped with Radulov’s flagship program MATRIX already installed as part of their most recent operating systems. In many ways, he’d saved the computer age from hackers and terrorists.
Not that he wasn’t humble about it all, at least in public.
It was fitting he’d made his money in cybersecurity, because cyber warfare was the next—the only—logical step. The terrorists had their own weaponry, their own drones and IEDs—improvised explosive devices—and, in some extreme cases, planes. They moved through the dark web unseen, unstoppable, buying and selling drugs and weapons, accumulating wealth and influence, recruiting more and more lost souls to their cause.
Roman’s entire life had been built on preventing the flow of negative information, stopping black hat hackers in their tracks, protecting the vulnerable, the ignorant, the gullible. His values had made him rich; his brilliance and charm had made him popular. In the last piece Forbes did on Roman and Radulov Industries, they’d called him Cyber Superman—he was Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Elon Musk rolled into a single brain, with a touch of Tony Stark’s humorous arrogance. He’d liked that.
When Barstow had approached Roman about an off-book black-ops program he’d pictured in his mind—specifically, putting together a private drone army to help the smaller countries the United Kingdom wasn’t able to legally protect—Roman was impressed. He’d jumped at the chance to stop the evil that was spreading unchecked across Africa.
Barstow had quietly assembled the Money—the six people here for the demonstration who would fund the operation, if, that is, they were impressed enough to transfer half the total funds required to a special account Barstow had set up. When the drone army was ready to ship, the other half of its total cost, two billion pounds, would be paid. Barstow had also assured him the Money had the resources to move the drones into place. As for Lord Barstow, he referred to himself as Roman’s partner, a small conceit Roman allowed him. He would remain the financial bridge between the Money and Roman. He himself wasn’t rich, merely comfortable, but through his title, lineage, and government contacts, he knew everyone who counted. Roman was amazed Barstow had the brains and guts to set this plan into motion and equally amazed he’d managed to convince six wealthy people to pay for it.
It was the make-or-break moment for Roman, but he wasn’t worried. It was the perfect time—the sun was beginning to set, the sky turning lovely shades of pink and orange, signaling the ending of a very good day. It was time to show Barstow and the Money what they were going to get for their incredible investment of two billion pounds.
In the distance, there was a small village crafted by Roman’s people, no living souls inside, of course, with everything a small desert village would have—huts, cardboard people and goats, even a rooster, several large outbuildings for livestock. They’d spent three weeks here in the bloody-hot desert putting it all together.
Roman grinned to himself.
Now came the fun part.
He nodded to Cyrus Wendell, his right hand for nearly ten years now. Cyrus had worked with him on the development of the drones. He was the only one of Roman’s people he trusted to be there for the demonstration. Cyrus pressed a button on the laptop. Roman lifted his arm, now encased in leather. His wrist held what looked like a small computer keyboard and screen.
“All of the weapons are remotely operated through a computer program I’ve written, controlled by this small device on my forearm. As you can see, this weapons system is portable, discreet—you could even take it on a commercial airline flight. It’s rechargeable and runs on a proprietary lithium-ion battery for long life. It has the latest in Radulov’s biometric security—iris coding and facial recognition, with a DNA backup, as well. Should your device be stolen, or, heaven forbid, you’re forced to unlock it against your will, the system is built to recognize distress in your facial features and take an immediate DNA sample to make sure no one else is trying to control it. If it’s not you, it will shut down.”
Paulina Vittorini, who ran a wealthy shipyard for her family and was considering a run for MP, said, “Impressive, Mr. Ardelean. These measures concern me, though. Are you expecting people to try to steal the technology off our wrists?”
Roman smiled, a hint of flirt on his face. “Wouldn’t you? I take nothing for granted in this world, Ms. Vittorini. Protecting my people and their technology is paramount.
“Now, let me show you what you’ll be getting for your buy-ins.”
Roman pressed the button on his wrist, said nothing, waited three seconds.
It sounded like a swarm of bees, coming closer, closer. The murmurs stopped. The five falcons went on alert, but with a muted command from their master, sat back, yellow eyes watchful.
Seemingly out of nowhere, the drones flew directly over the tent and the presentation space, then stopped and hovered overhead. Roman had included six different breeds—he saw the drones like he saw his five falcons: each had a strength, a pedigree, a purpose. From his tiny hovering dragonfly-like Night Hawk to the fifteen-foot long flagship, the Geode, each rose up in unison and got in line, ready for his command.
“Off you go,” Roman said quietly, pressed a button, and they were over the makeshift village in a few moments.
The drones circled their targets, shooting off their specifics weapons—one dropping IEDs on the village, another landing and placing a bomb on the ground before soaring back into the air. Gunfire spurted out of another, loud and deadly, then was almost drowned out by the whistle of a missile launching from the Geode. To the delight of the Money, the small fabricated city and all its cardboard props were destroyed within a minute. Roman swiped a finger on the screen, and the strikes stopped. The drones came back toward them, hovering serenely twenty feet in the air.
Roman handed off the biometric glove to Barstow, who pulled it on and flew the Geode through the skies, trying hard to crash it, marveling at the auto-stabilization, then, as Roman watched, Barstow smiled slyly and dropped a hellfire missile on the city’s smoking ruins.
As flames shot into the quickening night, the Money burst into applause, talking over one another, surprise, awe. It pleased Roman inordinately.
Chapman Donovan said in his gravelly smoker’s voice, “Ardelean, this is brilliant—well done. Well done, indeed. Ah, together, we will halt radical Islam in its tracks! All of you, do we give Mr. Ardelean the go-ahead?”
Applause and enthusiastic nods all around.
Vittorini asked, “What does the little drone do?”
“The Night Hawk is a personal-protection drone capable of delivering a needle-size weapon into the neck of a target from twenty-five yards away. So if you need to assassinate someone, you’ll want to order a few of them.”
Barstow laughed, almost too heartily, gave Roman an avuncular smile, and slapped him on the shoulder. “And whom among us knows when such a need might arise? You’ve thought of everything.”
“Thank you, my lord. I’m glad you’re pleased. Now, I have one last display for you before we get down to business.”
Roman gestured with his hand and gave a short whistle. With a piercing shriek, the falcons took off as one, as if they, too, were programmed by Roman’s computers. The Money gasped in surprise when the falcons attacked the drones, swooping down, grabbing them by their bellies and whipping them to the ground. Within a few minutes, Roman’s small drone army was destroyed.
He loved the looks of shock on their faces and said, in his charming leader’s voice, an eyebrow arched, “You were not expecting a counteroffensive? We must have a proper defense to protect us from the future of unmanned warfare. If the terrorists attack us with their drones, there is nothing we can do but try to shoot them out of the sky, which rarely works. Properly trained falcons and eagles, on the other hand, can watch for incoming drones and eliminate them before they get anywhere near their targets.”
He was pleased Vittorini looked properly impressed. “But how do they not get hurt by the propellers?”
“Their legs and breasts are wrapped in impenetrable specialty Kevlar.”
From the looks on their faces—Barstow had been right—they were all in, as eager as children on Christmas morning. It was a victory for Barstow, whose plan it was, and a victory for Roman, who’d set his own genius to the drone development and succeeded beyond all expectations.
He smiled, nodded. “Please feel free to join me back in the tent, and I will review our production steps with you.” And he bowed. “Your private army awaits. I will be there in a moment—I need to give my falcons their reward.”
Cyrus wheeled up a cart of five dead rabbits. The Money stuck around to see the falcons tear them apart, one rabbit to each falcon, and marveled at their perfect conduct.
And then they followed Roman to the tent, their steps light, each face glowing with enthusiasm and hope.