1 Chapter 1: Prologue, Part 1

"This is just fucking bullshit." Gavin Emery leaned forward in his chair, his face set in angry lines. His hoarse growl caught everyone's attention. "How do we know this is even real?"

Jed Whitlow looked at the hologram in front of him. "Because I say so, and there's no fucking way I'd lie to you or anyone else in this group. We've been together too long, and the plan is too critical, especially at this point. We are almost at the target date."

Jed was the one who had called the meeting, so suddenly that the only option was to hold it holographically. They all lived too far away from each other to hold it live. At least this way they'd all be able to see each other. The eight people gathered for this represented a major portion of the wealth in North America and wielded significant behind-the-scenes power, globally as well as nationally. In two weeks, they would gather at the Whitlows' hunting lodgealthough the luxury of the place made it too extravagant to call a lodge. The subject of the meeting was the critical last step in a complex plan they had been working on for three years. They were much too far into it to pull the plug, so this news made them all tense and on edge.

"Okay then, Jed. You're up," Gavin told him. "You're the one who got the call and went to see Bernardo. Are we in a bunch of shit here?"

"I don't think so." Jed cleared his throat. "First of all, let me remind you that Bernardo and I have known each other since college. Even though he lives in Colorado. We've kept in touch over the years, and I knew this was something he'd buy into percent. He's been a valuable asset from Day One, as has his wife, Jeanne Her skill at plucking information out of thin air has helped Ferren Arms and Munitions Manufacturing to grow to the size it is now."

"But your message told us the situation has changed," Emery pointed out.

"It has." Jed paused. "As you all know, three days ago, at ten fifteen in the morning, Bernardo suffered a major heart attack. Luckily, he was home. His wife called EMS, and he was rushed to the hospital, where he's still in the cardiac care unit. I flew up to see him at once, and it seems his recovery won't be happening anytime soon. He may even need open-heart surgery." He paused. "Questions so far?"

"Where do we stand now?" Emery persisted. "You say he's out, which could be a fucking disaster. He's the one providing all the supplies we need for this as well as the means to deliver them."

Lorena Alvaro leaned forward in her chair. Jed noticed that even at this early hour she was perfectly put together, as if attending the meeting in person. Her vanity and obsession with not showing her age were legendary, and she hadn't yet figured out that none of them gave a flying fuck what she looked like as long as she did her part.

"Yes. How can we be sure this isn't being faked? Maybe he just got cold feet now that we're down to the wire and at the last minute wanted out. Leaving us in a terrible position, I might add. Are we even sure this is a real episode? I've had a doubt or two about him of late."

Jed ground his teeth. This woman got on his nerves and things like that could throw a monkey wrench into their plans.

"He's done absolutely nothing to make you feel that way." He might have said the words with a little more force than necessary. "As I said earlier, I've known him for years, and that's just not in his wheelhouse. That's why I felt confident reaching out to him at the start. You don't flourish in the arms business if it is. He's more upset about this than we are. His doctors are having to increase his medication because of that to make sure he doesn't have another attack."

"You're sure?" Lorena persisted.

Why couldn't she just take his word for it so they could get on with the business at hand? If it weren't for the fact she and her contacts were such a critical piece of this operation he'd uninvite her.

"You don't have open-heart surgery scheduled just to miss a meeting, Lorena. I spoke at length to both his doctor and his wife when I was there and, I can assure you, this is real."

"Just remember," Lorena pointed out, "that this plan came about because of Elias and myself. We were the ones originally being paid to let the cartel use our land to get their drugs into this country."

"And collected even more when they told you they wanted to up the ante and smuggle high-value terrorists in along with those drugs," Kurt Cavanaugh pointed out.

"They were already getting paid a king's ransom to do it, so there was plenty to share," Gavin added. "But few of their 'clients' had any idea of what they would do next except to wage small attacks on multiple areas of this country. Kill a lot of people. Those people have no idea how much 'a lot' really is."

"Yes, well, without that we'd never be able to put this plan in place," Lorena pointed out, "so pardon me if I'm a little edgy about this change in the situation. You would all do well to remember that. Now, tell me." Lorena crossed her legs. "How is Jeanne taking it? I always saw her as a weak link. Maybe we need to handle her until this is over."

Jed wanted to smash something. Why did Lorena always have to be such a bitch? Her "handling" of things always resulted in bloodshed.

"She's upset, as you can imagine," he answered, "but holding it together. And she's not a weak link, as you put it, Lorena. She knows what's at stake here, just as everyone does. But obviously, if he's not coming to the meeting, neither is she."

"Of course," Lorena snapped.

They had all met originally and formed their little group as couples. Although each marriage had a dominant partner, they had all been equals at the table, each an integral part of the group. Each of them brought a vital contribution to the organization, and was as committed to The Plan as their spouse. Now the unspoken question that hovered in the air was who would replace the Ferrens and make sure their contribution didn't disappear?

Jeanne Ferren was a specialist at analyzing data, something she'd learned working for a defense contractor long before she and Bernardo had married and with great care built their place at the top level of society. She'd had no problem at all turning that knowledge to helping them with their overall long-term project. Bernardo, a manufacturer and world-wide distributor of arms and munitions, knew exactly what to use and where and when to use it. He would also supply all the weapons for the schedule of "events" in the timeline.

"There can't be any places at the table vacant now," Gavin pointed out. "The last two pieces of the puzzle will be arriving this week. This meeting coming up is to put the finishing touches on the plans and be ready to move forward." He shook his head. "This is a terrible time for him to have a heart attack."

"I'll be sure to pass that along to him." Jed's voice was edged with sarcasm.

"So, tell us. Just who is going to replace them? We can't recruit strangers at this point. And what about the arms he's providing? That's a fucking lot of firearms and munitions to try and get holographic images, his stare biting into those viewing the meeting. "We have spent monthsno, yearsplanning and we are too far into this to call it off. We will never have another chance like this. Everyoneand I mean everyoneis ready to move forward once these next players arrive. We can't drop just anyone into this. If it weren't for the arms and munitions that are at the heart of this, I'd say just move forward."

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