Hello all and happy Saturday. As I said on the mailing list and on social media, today I’m giving you the first look at Pantheon’s sequel. Just like The Memo and Make It Three while there are no spoilers, but this is the opening to Pantheon’s sequel; I highly recommend you finish reading Pantheon prior to reading as the characters and their roles will make much more sense that way.
Haven’t bought it yet? You can find it in both paperback and e-book on Amazon.
Murphy – 0130Z/0430L, 20 APR
US Marine Corps Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins rolled over in his narrow rack, snuggling up to the furry body next to him and relishing the warmth.
“Good morning, Zora,” he said with a smile. He ignored the gnawing hunger in his belly and his hand lazily patted his dog’s face, scratching under her fuzzy chin.
Zora sat up, her weight depressing the center of the canvas cot. She gave him a smile, tongue lolling out in a happy doggy grin.
“Aww, come on pupper, don’t get up yet.” He glanced at his Ares watch and groaned. “We got fifteen more minutes before we need to be up for the patrol.”
Zora stared back at him, one ear pointing straight up, the other flopping down. Belgian Malinois breed standards dictated that both ears should be “stiff, erect, and an equilateral triangle.” Her slightly drooping ear had almost been enough to disqualify her from the Military Working Dog puppy program. Murphy thought it gave her a roguish look. Given that Zora was the only female he loved, he was glad she made it through the working dog selection program despite what some might consider her “deformity.” He scratched the floppy ear.
“Okay, girl, okay. If you insist,” Murphy said to the dog, rising. “We can get up.”
Zora hopped off the cot as he rose, circled his tiny room, nose whuffling at the piles of dust strung along the floor.
Murphy gave the floor a disgusted look. The insidious moon dust grit drifted in despite how often he swept. After his many deployments, his hatred of sand was growing to epic proportions.
Murphy and his team had been in Syria for five weeks and he was still struggling to adjust to the change from his home in north-central Florida. Florida had a sultry, humid spring and sandy clay dirt, but this part of Syria was hot, dry, and coated in the damned moon dust. Murphy dressed, closing the last Velcro tab on his body armor and grabbing Zora’s armor.
“Here, girl,” he said quietly. Zora sat obediently in front of him as he gently lowered the canine flak vest onto her back. Hands swift and sure from long practice, he affixed her buckles and gave a final scratch of Zora’s ear before he snagged his guns, checked both magazines, and opened his door.
Zora sneezed and Murphy squinted into the pre-dawn gloom. Its smells and sounds of the Al Assad suburb of Damascus assaulted both man and dog. Around him, other doors in their make-shift urban camp were opening, and his security team members gathered for their pre-patrol briefing. Murphy eyed the dirty courtyard where they gathered. Sunrise was at least an hour away and dim lamps illuminated cobblestone roads. The door beside his hootch opened and the last two members of his team stumbled out, yawning and fastening body armor buckles.
“Okay, team. Keep the radio discipline strong. My team is ‘Red’ and you’re ‘Blue’ today, Gonzo.”
Gonzales gave him a gap-toothed grin.
“Same deal as yesterday,” Murphy continued with a wry smile. “The LT, who will be ‘Red One,’ wants us patrolling the eastern blocks while Blue Team goes west.” The new second lieutenant nominally led Murphy’s team and their sister team, at least that’s what the manning roster said on paper. But Murphy was a highly experienced NCO and was breaking in the fresh lieutenant so he didn’t hurt himself or others.
Everyone knew Staff Sergeant Murphy Hawkins had been living the traditional NCO ritual of gently guiding the new lieutenant since the young officer had arrived only three weeks before, his body armor still pristine and smelling like the plastic bags it came in. Second Lieutenant Alex Anderson was a model graduate of the United States Marine Corps Officer Basic School, gung-ho and full of fresh book learning, but no combat time at all. Plus, he was a whiny pissant. The team had been forced to politely allow the young man to believe he was in charge while Murphy systematically field trained him to be a worthwhile officer.
The men bent to double-check guns and gear pouches full of ammo. Murphy’s second in command, Sergeant Gonzalez, unclipped the lead from his own dog, Bali, preparing for departure.
Murphy gave him a quick fist bump. “Good hunting, Gonzo.”
Gonzalez said, “Cheers, bro,” with a smile that displayed the new gap in his grin where he’d lost a tooth the week before. Not from enemy contact, but after a patrol where he’d gotten accidentally clocked in the face with a rifle butt trying to film a video for social media. Rather than allowing himself and Bali to be removed from the team and sent to the rear and a dentist, Gonzalez had pulled out the severely loosened tooth himself with his multi-tool and gone back on patrol the next day.
Bali joined Zora and the two frisked briefly across the sandy alley before returning to their handlers.
“Questions, comments, concerns?” Murphy asked the group when they’d finished settling their gear. He ached for a cigarette, but his two-week stash had run out the week before and they hadn’t had the luxury of running to a 7-11 since arriving. Murphy reminded himself that his life in the Corps was only two more months. In two months, he would transfer to the Navy.
“I got a question, Sarge—what’s the chance we find some pussy on our patrol?” Lance Corporal Strake asked with a leer.
“About as high as finding some damn Cope longcut, Strake,” Murphy told him.
“And that’s the reason why you’re still a damn terminal lance, Strake,” one of his men muttered too quietly for him to catch who said it.
“All right, fuck faces, any real questions?” Murphy asked. If Strake was feeling his oats this early, it was going to be a long day. Young Marines love four things: the Corps, women, booze, and tobacco. In that order.
Heads shook in compliance. “Right. High fives, team, then let’s move out. And I swear to God, if you fuckers forget your MREs again, you will fucking starve. I’m not sharing with stupid people again.”
“Sorry, Murph.” Rawlins called from his right.
The team exchanged their traditional quick round of high fives and moved out.
Their eight-man squad, comprised of two fire teams, moved into the streets of suburban Damascus. Each fire team consisted of a grenadier, an automatic rifleman, a rifleman, and a designated marksman, and the team leader. In the case of his group, Murphy and Sergeant Gonzalez were both canine handlers and team leads. Usually, fire teams didn’t have a K9 partner, or “fifth man,” but for their mission in Syria, Murphy’s teams did. Zora and Bali were charged with sniffing out bombs and bomb-making supplies as well as taking down suspected terrorists as they fled. They also provided an intimidation factor. While the terrorists Murphy and his team sought were usually fearless, something about two fierce Malinois scared the shit out of the Syrians. Additionally, Murphy was a trained Arabic speaker, able to interpret and interact with the local community. Between his Arabic and Zora, he was the ideal team lead.
The first hour of their patrol was simple. The same mind-numbing monotony Murphy’s teams had experienced for the last few weeks. Theoretically, they were hunting suspected terrorists hiding in and around the outskirts of Damascus, but so far, their daily searches had been fruitless. Murphy let his mind wander as Zora loped ahead, sniffing the courtyards and alleys ahead of the team.
Six weeks ago, he’d been in the office of the Commandant of the Marine Corps. General Sterling had interviewed him personally on his pending award of the Navy Cross. Murphy had been both pleased and embarrassed to find out he was being awarded the Navy and Marine Corps’ second-highest honor for action during his last deployment to Afghanistan. He had sat stiffly in the chair offered to him, body nearly rigid, and uncomfortable during the whole interview.
While he knew the interview was merely a formality, a chance for the Commandant to get to know him before awarding the medal, he had been nervous. The Commandant had asked him about his time in the Corps as well as what Murphy thought of his future. Murphy knew damned well the Commandant had expected him to say he was staying in the Corps. The general officer couldn’t have looked more shocked had Murphy slapped him in the face when he said he was transferring to the Navy in three months.
He’d demanded to know why Murphy would leave when he was so obviously needed in the Corps. Murphy, as calmly as he could, told the general he had always wanted to be a Navy SEAL. Murphy had been irked to learn that his recruiter had lied to him and that Marines were ineligible.
The Commandant had a murderous look for a fleeting second before acknowledging that a man who’d earned the Navy Cross was surely good material for the SEAL program. By the end of the conversation, he’d even offered to write a letter on Murphy’s behalf to the acceptance board. Murphy had smiled politely and thanked him, fully expecting it to be a polite formality—until the General called his aide in to take Murphy’s name, home phone number, and the date of the in-service SEAL selection board. A genuine smile had broken across Murphy’s face before he departed with a handshake.
Murphy scanned the dark, narrow, sludge-filled alley in front of him with a strange, unsettling feeling. Roughly fifteen meters down the alley he could see movement behind a stack of rugs. He whistled quietly and Zora heeled, pressing against his leg. He motioned silently for his team to stop, the hair on the back of his neck prickling. Murphy listened carefully, ears straining to catch any sound. He caught voices speaking in hushed English, a rarity in the outskirts of Damascus.
“No, Yaʿqūb, it must be in less than two months,” a voice said nearby. “If the bombs do not go off, and inside your nation of infidels, then the plan will not work.”
Murphy silently motioned his team forward and gave Zora the sign to search out the voice. They had been searching for high pay off targets for five weeks and this was the most promising lead he and the team had thus far.
“No, three months is not soon enough. If we are to show our strength, it must be two weeks or less.” The voice paused, clearly listening. “Yes. Good then. Until tomorrow, may Allah bless you.”
Murphy’s team flanked the walls of the narrow alley, moving steadily and stealthily forward towards their high payoff targets. For a brief moment, the only sound combat boots on sand.
“Damned infidels. They still believe we are on the same side but agree to their half of the destruction. By coordinating bombs in both their nation and ours, we can show how far reaching the power of the caliphate,” Murphy heard the voice say in Arabic.
Cold fear dropped leaden into Murphy’s belly. Terrorists in Syria coordinating with a group he could only assume was on American soil? The thought horrified him. He signaled to his team. On his count, they would break down the small wooden door they had surrounded. Murphy tapped his throat mic, calling his lieutenant, by now at least three miles in the opposite direction.
“Red One, Red Four, possible contact with HPTs. Coord for an extract to interrogation, twenty mike,” he whispered.
“Copy. Stand by, coordinating,” the young man’s voice replied. The lieutenant might not be the most seasoned veteran, but he was good at coordinating.
Murphy nodded to his team and counted down with his fingers.
A press of bodies burst through the door, Zora hot on their heels. Murphy followed, running with a practiced gait that minimized the rattle of his gear, the butt of his rifle held tight to his shoulder and in the ready position. Before he could cross the threshold, chaos erupted.
Angry shouts in Arabic came through the door as Murphy entered. He flicked his ballistic glasses off his nose and looked through the tableau. Two men in traditional long kaftans and loose pants held guns that we directed at Murphy’s men and Murphy’s team had their weapons up, tense with tightly leashed lethality. Both groups were tense. Zora growled at the men who were seemingly more terrified of her than his men.
“Put down your weapons,” Murphy barked out in Arabic. Slowly, the men complied. Murphy felt a loosening in his tension, but the hair at the back of his neck still prickled. “Hands in the air,” he told them. Their quick compliance bothered Murphy.
Murphy’s eyes flicked over the room, noting bomb-making supplies scattered across makeshift worktables. He gave a sharp nod to Rawlins, who was breathing hard at his right. This was exactly the thing they’d been sent to catch. He wanted to relax, but something in the two men’s speedy compliance nagged at him.
“Cuff them and we’ll bring them to the courtyard. LT has an extraction in twenty,” Murphy told his men. They restrained the two men and marched them out the door.
As Murphy exited, gunfire erupted in the dark, narrow alley.
Murphy’s mind went into overdrive as he watched the men controlling the terrorists drop, bullets tearing through their bodies. Murphy tapped his mic. “Red One, Red Four, contact three miles east of base, two men down,” he shouted. Without waiting for a response, Murphy pressed forward to look for shooters from the doorway. Before he could get his barrel through the doorway, Zora leapt forward.
“No!” he yelled at her. A bullet struck her and she emitted a pitiful yelp as she fell. “NO!” Murphy roared. He’d been scared and angry to see his men ambushed, but seeing Zora felled by a bullet drove the fear from a cold fury in his belly, directly into his heart.
Heedless of the hail of bullets, Murphy darted forward. His mind in overdrive, he saw Zora laying on the ground next to his two men and the terrorists. He knew that Rawlins was at his back, ready to provide suppressing fire for his two downed men. Murphy dropped into a baseball slide, stopping next to Zora. He lay his body over hers as he scanned for targets. At one the end of the alley, he could see a group of armed men rushing toward them with weapons drawn and point at his team.
The swarm of oncoming men outnumbered and out-gunned them. With only Rawlins and Murphy able to fight, the five armed men approaching them would be a match, even for two Marines. He eyed the room they had just exited. It wasn’t perfect but might provide a measure of cover, of safety, for his team while they unscrewed this mess.
“Red One, Red Four, I say again, contact three miles east of base, two men down.” Murphy raised his own gun, squeezing off a burst of gunfire. “Requesting any available air support for E-CAS.” Getting emergency close air support was a long shot at best and risked his life almost as much as it offered support.
Rawlins yelled wordlessly and Murphy looked back. At the opposite end of the alley, another hostile group was running towards Murphy and his men. Chips of mud wall and dust rained down on Murphy as the men opened fire.
Pushing down his fear, Murphy tried to rally his thoughts. He knew he and his men would soon be overrun and would likely be killed. He needed a safe place from which to fight and, hopefully, get a little airpower rained down, two-thousand pounds at a time.
“Red Four, stand by for E-CAS.” The lieutenant’s voice was calm as it crackled through his radio.
“Copy,” Murphy growled as he dragged Zora back inside the building, crouching low. He thanked any god he could name the hostiles were terrible shots and he could make it to even this small measure of safety unharmed. With Zora out of the middle of the alley, he rejoined Rawlins, who crouched over their two injured Marines and the handcuffed terrorists.
“Cover me, I’ll drag them both inside,” Murphy yelled.
At Rawlins’ nod, he grabbed each man by the handle on the back of their armor and pulled them inside the door while Rawlins’ gun sprayed a blast of covering fire. One of the men, Swanbourne, was still conscious but was bleeding profusely from both legs. Murphy tossed him a medical kit and quickly made sure the man’s gun was at hand.
“Stop the bleeding, then be ready,” Murphy said and darted back out the door. “Rawlins, pull back, we’ll use the door frame for cover. I assume they won’t shoot their own,” he nodded to the two terrorists still in the alley. Murphy leveled his gun, aiming down the alleyway.
The smaller man bolted for the door and Murphy gave him a quick high-five when he settled against the doorframe. Murphy glanced around the small room, taking in each man and Zora. The building’s meager walls would provide only a small measure of protection. He needed to pause this fight long enough to get them to safety.
Incongruously, his mind went back to the Commandant’s office once more.
Zora gave a quiet whine, almost inaudible in the rising gunfire and shattering of concrete around them. Murphy’s mind sought safety. He drew in a deep breath and released it, picturing some place safe. In his mind, he felt as if he was reaching for that safety. Without conscious effort, Murphy Jumped himself, his three men, and Zora into the office his mind had sought.
At his desk in the Commandant’s office, General Sterling was reviewing paperwork late into the night. His first wife had hated when he worked late. His second had used it to sleep her way through half of Quantico. The third merely accepted it as part of being the general’s wife. Regardless of the havoc it created in his personal life, he enjoyed the peace and focus it gave him when reviewing critical documents.
When four sweaty, dusty men and a dog suddenly appeared in his office, he gave a yell of surprise as he stood so fast he knocked his chair over. A career spanning thirty years in the Marine Corps had taught him to expect the unexpected but the sudden arrivals strained his calm. He gave the bloody, dirty heap of men a quick glance and recognized one of the dust-covered men.
“Staff Sergeant Hawkins?” he asked with more calm than he felt.
Murphy heard a voice calling him but ignored it. He was focused on what was in front of him. Breathing hard, he searched Zora’s chest with shaking hands, seeking the bullet hole. He found only a small line of scarlet where the bullet had grazed her. Murphy ignored the sudden quiet that followed the chattering of gunfire as he pulled gauze from his pack and pushed the wad onto the wound, securing it with a second roll.
He turned to his men and rocked back in confusion. Adrenaline allowed him to ignore the sudden fatigue weighing him down, but it didn’t account for his confusion. Where was the building they had just been in? Still ignoring the voice calling to him, assuming it was the lieutenant in his earpiece, he took in his men. His heart rate, already racing from the adrenaline, ratcheted up another notch when he noted blood now seeping across their uniforms.
“Sergeants Hawkins!” a voice bellowed, finally pulling his attention away from his team.
“LT, I need just another goddamn minute to sort this cluster out and we can talk about extraction,” Murphy said into his mic.
“No, Sergeant, I don’t think you need an extraction. I think you’ve got it under control,” the voice told him.
A gentle hand clasped his shoulder and Murphy tensed. His skin still burned with adrenaline, his breath was harsh, and his hand started to move without conscious thought as he stared at the carpet in front of him.
Sudden realization sunk into Murphy.
Carpet. Quiet. Clean. Things that meant he was safe. The arm moving to do violence slowed.
Murphy expelled a ragged breath, vision focused on the deep blue carpet under his hands. He looked up from his men, his focus finally taking in the rest of his surroundings. The Commandant’s plush office surrounded him and his battered team; he could feel the grit of Syrian sand digging into his knee where it pressed into soft carpeting. Darkness crowded in as Murphy pulled a whining Zora close.
“Nancy,” General Sterling called to his open door, knowing full well his secretary was there despite dismissing her hours ago. “Call Marco Martinez at Limitless Logistics. Tell him I need him in my office, right now. Tell him,” General Sterling paused a moment and gave a wry smile, “the Pantheon is expanding.”
I hope you enjoy this first chapter! I will start releasing additional info about the coming sequel in a few weeks. In the mean time, I would love to hear from you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or by email! Stay up to date on the latest KR Paul news by joining our mailing list. As always, thank you dear fans!