Readers looking for twisting, fast-paced suspense will be swept away by Jack Soren’s newest tale of thrilling international adventure…
Jonathan Hall and Lew Katchbrow intended to leave life as international art thieves behind them-if only the money hadn’t run out. But when a shadowy organization approaches the duo offering compensation, protection, and prestige in exchange for their skills, Jonathan and Lew think it’s the answer to their problems…
But the nightmare has only just begun.
Suddenly Jonathan and Lew are thrust headlong into a race against time and a technology that science says shouldn’t exist. With the very nature of life and death on Earth hanging in the balance, it’s up to Jonathan and Lew to discover the truth behind Ashita—a terrifying futuristic city in the depths of the Pacific Ocean—and stop it. But the clock is ticking. If Jonathan and Lew fail this heist, millions will die—and the human race will never be the same.
12:15 p.m. Local Time
Jonathan Hall hadn’t been home in almost two years. Not that he hadn’t had a place to live during that time. As a matter of fact, Jonathan had lived in some extravagantly opulent locales—a penthouse in New York, a yacht on the Aegean Sea anchored off Mykonos Island, even an abandoned palace in Thailand. But none of those were home. The last home he’d known was a tiny, run-down house in Tallahassee, Florida. But it hadn’t been the building that had made it home. It had been the company.
Now, as he sat in a cafe in London, watching the crowds pass by outside in the midday September sunshine, oblivious to the magnificence of The Thames and London Bridge, Jonathan thought of his daughter, Natalie. Not that his thoughts were ever far from her. He hadn’t seen her in person in almost a year. And the year before that he’d only managed to see her a few fleeting times. These were important years for her and he was missing them. The same way he’d missed the first five years of her life. He hadn’t even known Natalie existed back then, but it still bothered him.
He wished Natalie’s mother was still alive. That’s what a 13-year-old girl needed, a woman to explain all those things she was feeling and experiencing as she became a teenager. Not a father who, when he was around, put her life in danger. A father who had no idea what he was doing. A father who had been an art thief for the past twenty years.
Jonathan squeezed a napkin to ease his tension as the waiter drifted by. He ordered another chai tea. The waiter nodded and took the old cup away. It was Jonathan’s second.
He checked his watch. Their contact was over half an hour late. But he wasn’t giving up just yet; Fahd was skittish as hell and in all likelihood was pacing back and forth up the street trying to decide what to do. In the end, Jonathan knew he’d show. It wasn’t hubris speaking, it was pragmatism. Fahd needed the money that was weighing down Jonathan’s black leather jacket, making it hang on the back of his chair at an odd angle.
Jonathan had found Fahd the same way he found all their jobs these days: through the Dark Web. Using a special web browser that protected his identity, Jonathan could access web sites and discussion forums where normal search engines couldn’t go, with no fear of being tracked. He still had to vet his contacts carefully before actually meeting them—law enforcement agencies around the world were well aware of the Dark Web, and stings were becoming more and more common—but after all these years, Jonathan had become quite skilled at knowing who was and wasn’t on the level.
As the waiter brought his beverage, Jonathan took the opportunity to scan the room again. He avoided direct eye contact—especially with the hulking man sitting by the window, hunched over a plate of pastries and a giant, ridiculously sweet coffee, his long duster coat hanging over the back of his stool. The man was Lew Katchbrow, Jonathan’s long-time partner and about the only person in the world he trusted. Jonathan nodded thanks as the waiter left again, confident that the scattering of patrons were oblivious to him.
He sipped his tea as his thoughts drifted back to Natalie. She’d just started high school last week and he hated that he couldn’t be there. But it was for her own good. Because of him, her life had been in jeopardy twice in the past two years. He wasn’t going to let that happen again. No matter how difficult it was.
The first year Natalie was away at boarding school in British Columbia, Jonathan had tried to stay away, but he’d given in to his emotions and slowly started visiting her every few months. Then it became every few weeks. She’d been mad at him for sending her away at first, but she soon came around.
Then the unthinkable had happened. They’d found her. He didn’t have any proof, but he was sure it was because of his visits. Canton George, an industrialist with a score to settle, had sent men to take her and to find Jonathan and Lew any way they could. It was only by sheer dumb luck that Lew had been with Jonathan on that visit to her campus when Canton George and his men came. Several tense hours later, George was blind in one eye, his men were dead and Natalie had been forced to once again abandon her life. Sadly, George had managed to get away.
A new identity and a few months later, Natalie was enrolled in another boarding school. This one in Switzerland. And that was the last time Jonathan had seen his daughter in person. Even their encrypted Skype calls had started to make him nervous. As painful as it was, he’d stopped taking her calls, and instead paid the school’s head master to keep Jonathan updated on his daughter’s activities through a series of back channels, again on the Dark Web.
The bell over the café door rang, shaking Jonathan from his memories. It was Fahd, his contact, a guard at a local museum. Jonathan waited for a small crowd of patrons to finish leaving before he motioned to Fahd. The caramel-skinned, slight, black-haired man nodded and moved towards the table, furtively scanning the room as he approached. As he did, Jonathan’s phone, resting on the table, buzzed. He looked down and saw Natalie’s picture displayed on the screen.
He swore under his breath and swiped the Reject button as Fahd sat down. The waiter drifted over and asked Fahd for his order, but Fahd, who kept wiping sweat from his brow with a napkin, tried to just wave him off. Jonathan smiled, apologized for his “friend” and ordered an espresso for him. Though as the waiter left, Jonathan thought more stimulation was the last thing this guy needed.
“You’re late,” Jonathan said flatly.
“I almost didn’t come,” Fahd said in a British accent that said he’d been schooled well despite his position at the museum. Jonathan knew the story behind that, though not from Fahd, himself. Fahd had been expelled from school after only two years for running an illegal poker game out of his dorm. A position as a guard at a local museum was the best he could do with that track record. It was one of the reasons Jonathan had decided to deal with him in the first place. He was motivated by money even more than most people.
The job was a small one, as far as their jobs went—a stolen set of rare books. But lately that seemed to be the rule of the day. Not that there weren’t bigger opportunities out there, but Jonathan had become selective, taking lower profile jobs, which of course meant lower pay. But if they could stay off the radar of their usual vindictive billionaire targets, maybe it would be safe to reconnect with Natalie. Still, their resources were starting to feel the pinch, and Lew was starting to notice the pattern.
Sometimes Jonathan wondered what it would be like to sell the works he and Lew stole instead of settling for the finder’s fee from the original owner or museum. Even though what they did had never been about the money.
Jonathan took the envelope from his jacket pocket and placed it on the table. Fahd, his nervousness gone at the sight of the fat envelope, reached out and tried to take the money, but Jonathan kept his hand on it.
“The name,” Jonathan said when Fahd looked up at him, confused.
“Oh, right,” Fahd said, licking his lips and appearing to weigh responding against letting go of the envelope. “Jacobson. Peter Jacobson.” Jonathan hesitated for a moment but then took his hand away. Fahd yanked the envelope off the table and held it in his lap under the table, peeking inside.
“The address?” Jonathan asked.
Fahd told him the address, practically giggling as he pocketed the envelope. The name and address were new information for Jonathan, but he’d already met briefly with Fahd and knew Peter Jacobson was another guard at the museum. One with even less scruples than Fahd.
“Nice doing bus–”
“Sit down,” Jonathan said, his tone slamming Fahd’s already rising butt back down on the uncomfortable wooden chair. “Why’d Jacobson tell you he has the books? You’re obviously not friends.”
“I honestly don’t know. He doesn’t really have any friends that I’ve seen. He’s, well…” Fahd seemed to be looking for the right words.
“Well, he’s weird. Has conversations with himself. Only wears half his uniform sometimes. He’ll sit down across from you on break, stare at you and never say a word.”
This Jonathan didn’t like. It made his ultimate target unpredictable. And that meant dangerous. He also figured something else out from Fahd’s subtext.
“So he didn’t tell you. You just heard him talking to himself,” Jonathan said.
Fahd looked like a kid caught swiping a sweet from the local Tesco.
“Relax,” Jonathan said. “You can keep the money. Assuming this pans out. If it doesn’t, you’ll be the one your co-workers are calling weird.” It was a vague threat, which Jonathan found worked best.
“Can I…” Fahd said, nodding towards the door.
“Yeah, beat it,” Jonathan said. He thought about stopping Fahd and making him pay for the espresso just for kicks, but let him go. He knew from past experiences with guys like Fahd, the less you had to do with them, the better.
Jonathan watched as Fahd stumbled his way back out of the cafe. The second he was out the door, Jonathan grabbed his phone. His anxiety eased when he saw that Natalie had left him a voice message. He was about to dial his voicemail when Lew dropped down into the seat Fahd had just been in.
“Twitchy give us anything good?” Lew asked, still chewing on a pastry.
“How are you not a thousand pounds?” Jonathan asked as he watched Lew inhale the rest of his “snack”. Jonathan had eaten with Lew more than he had anyone else on the planet, even Natalie, and the amount of food Lew consumed was always amusing. Especially since Lew was six feet tall and over 220 pounds, but only about 10% body fat. Jonathan was jealous. He had a thinner body type than Lew, but the past couple of years he’d had to really work to stay in shape. And he couldn’t remember the last time he’d let himself have anything resembling a pastry.
“Clea’ libbing,” Lew mumbled through a mouthful of dough. “So what’s up?”
“Talie called,” Jonathan said.
“Yes! I knew it. Told you, didn’t I? What did the little squirt say?”
“I don’t know. She called just as Fahd got here.”
“No, don’t tell me…you rejected her call? For that sleeze? That’s messed up, man,” Lew said, shaking his head.
“We got the name and address,” Jonathan said, ignoring Lew’s jabs. After all these years he’d gotten good at that. “We’ll go tomorrow. Make sure you get some sleep tonight.”
“Yes, Mom.” Lew drained his coffee. “Still can’t believe you didn’t answer the kid’s call.” He stood up, the chair creaking a sigh of relief. “I’ll come by your place in the morning. Call your kid.”
“Want some company?” Jonathan said, standing up and throwing a few pounds onto the table. Lew furrowed his brow and looked at him. Jonathan knew why; they’d made a habit of not being seen in public together. Just in case.
“Uh, sure. Anything specific you want to do?” Lew asked, donning his Raybans.
“Just walk,” Jonathan said.
They stepped out into the afternoon and headed east towards St. Paul’s Cathedral. They didn’t talk for almost an hour. They were as close as brothers and their silences were never awkward. Sometimes it was just good to be around someone who meant that much to you. After getting a couple ice cream cones, they ended up leaning against a railing and watching the afternoon river traffic.
After a while, Lew turned around and leaned back against the railing, watching the crowds. Tourists and businessmen strolled by in the September sunshine. But Jonathan knew Lew wasn’t people watching; he was making sure there were no threats about.
“You gonna tell me what’s on your mind?” Lew said without taking his eyes off the crowds.
“We’re running out of money,” Jonathan said. The smaller jobs had taken their toll. Paying off Fahd had actually made Jonathan worry about making his rent this month.
“I know,” Lew said.
“Sure, but this is what you do.”
“What I do?”
“Every now and then you get all freaked out about drawing too much attention and then you only set up smaller jobs for us. But you get over it and then we’re flush and back to normal. I have to admit, it’s gone on longer than usual this time, but you’ll come around. You always do,” Lew said.
“You seem awfully sure of yourself,” Jonathan said, trying to roll with what he’d just heard. He’d had no idea he was being so transparent, or that there had been enough of these times for there to be a pattern.
“I do, don’t I,” Lew said, looking at Jonathan over his Raybans. The look Jonathan could take, it was the shit-eating grin that went with it that got under his skin. “It must be annoying.”
“Hang on,” Jonathan said. “Why are you so calm about this?”
“I’m not calm.”
“You seem calm.”
“I don’t know why I’d seem calm.”
“Maybe because you’re calm.”
“After your last spate of cut-rate jobs, I figured it was time to add a little cash to the bugout bag in my closet.”
“A little. How little?”
“About fifty grand,” Lew said.
“You can borrow some if you want.”
“Sure. All you have to do is ask.”
Jonathan sighed and braced himself. “May I borrow some money.”
“What’s mine is yours, amigo. But you know there’s a way we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”
“Uh huh. How’s that?” Jonathan asked, but he was pretty sure he knew what was coming. Lew took off his glasses and looked Jonathan dead in the eyes.
“Let’s be The Monarch again.”
Jonathan knew Lew had never minded being The Monarch. Liked it, in fact. Especially the big payouts. They had started all of this because they’d been fed up with the system — Lew with the army and Jonathan with intelligence. Both had felt they were doing more harm than good. But then a chance meeting in Bogota, Colombia had set them on the path to make a difference. Though, there was a big distinction between returning some rare books stolen by a delusional security guard, and finding a lost Rembrandt the world had thought destroyed. As The Monarch they were preserving culture and history, but there was a big price to pay.
“What about Natalie?” Jonathan said. She wasn’t just Jonathan’s daughter, she was Lew’s surrogate niece.
“We can figure something out,” Lew said, sounding like a kid trying to convince his Dad to take him to a ballgame.
“‘Figure something out’,” Jonathan said flatly. “Jesus, you thought harder about which pastries to eat back at the cafe! Natalie isn’t something to figure out. She’s all that matters.”
“And I don’t know that?” Lew said, getting defensive. “I’m just the fucking idiot muscle.”
“I didn’t say that,” Jonathan said. Then after a minute: “But there are times—”
“Fuck you,” Lew said, pushing off from the railing. “If I’m such a mouth breather, get your own fucking money.” He roughly put his glasses on, swung around and marched off, his coat swirling in his hurry.
“Lew, don’t be like that. You know what I meant,” Jonathan said, but Lew kept walking. “Lew! Are you coming tomorrow?”
Lew spun around and walked backwards. “Sure! You might need me to lift something. Ladies and Gentlemen, Jonathan the giant brain. Give him a hand,” Lew said to the people around him, waving his arms like a circus ringmaster. Then he turned and disappeared into the crowd.
Sometimes I can be such a dick.
Jonathan didn’t believe for a minute that all Lew brought to the table was his physicality, but it was a button he could push to make Lew drop The Monarch nonsense. In retrospect, Jonathan knew he was lucky Lew hadn’t knocked him on his ass. He had to apologize, but when Lew got like this you just had to leave him alone for a while. The only person who could cut through his moods was Emily, his on-again, off-again girlfriend.
But as far as Jonathan knew, they’d been off for a long while. Ironically, for the same reason Jonathan was staying away from Natalie. Not that Lew would admit it, of course. Jonathan actually wished they could work things out, but he knew Lew could be a lot to take on a constant basis.
She was probably better off without him.
About the Author:
JACK SOREN was born and raised in Toronto, Canada.
Before becoming a thriller novelist, Jack wrote software manuals, drove a cab and spent six months as a really terrible private investigator. His debut novel The Monarch was nominated for the Kobo Emerging Writer national book award. He lives in the Toronto area.
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