Title: A Conspiracy of Ravens
Series: James Hicks #3
Authors: Terrence McCauley
Publisher: Polis Books
Publication Date: September 19, 2017
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
THE BATTLE LINES HAVE BEEN DRAWN. THE WAR HAS BEGUN.
James Hicks has spent his entire life and career fighting on the front
lines of terrorism for the clandestine intelligence organization known
as The University. Hicks has learned that enemies can appear and
disappear in the blink of an eye, and allegiances shift like the wind.
But now, Hicks has finally discovered his true enemy: the
criminal organization known as The Vanguard.
This shadowy group has operated as a deadly organization comprised
weapons dealers, drug runners, and money launderers for decades,
but has now decided to add regime change to their catastrophic agenda.
But knowing the enemy is one thing. Being able to defeat it is another
matter entirely. When Hicks uncovers a solid lead on his new adversaries,
his world explodes. His home base is attacked, his operatives in the
field are wiped out, and, for the first time, The University finds itself in
open combat against an unknown enemy. In a battle that rages from the
streets of Manhattan to the halls of power in Washington, D.C., to
the dark alleys of Berlin, Hicks will have to use every resource
at his disposal to defeat A Conspiracy of Ravens.
“In our new reality, Terrence McCauley’s A Conspiracy of Ravens
is not far from the realm of possibility. He hits all the right notes
while creating an simultaneously entertaining and frightening scenario. Read it.”
—Reed Farrel Coleman, New York Times bestselling author of What You Break
An Excerpt from A Conspiracy of Ravens
James Hicks was two hours south of Manhattan, driving to a meeting he didn’t want to attend in Washington, when his dashboard screen flashed red. It was a Proximity Alert from OMNI.
POSSIBLE SURVEILLANCE IN PROGRESS
“Goddamn it.” Hicks pounded the steering wheel. “Not this shit again.”
Surveillance was the whole reason he was driving to Washington, D.C. in the first place.
The Optimized Mechanical and Network Integration System (OMNI) was one of the most advanced computer networks in the world, giving the University one of the few advantages it enjoyed over the larger, federally-funded agencies. OMNI’s access to satellites, data systems, and communications networks collected more data in a millisecond than any human mind could ever comprehend, and saw more than any human eye could see.
Since being selected as Dean of the University weeks ago, the network now dedicated part of its impressive bandwidth to constantly scan his immediate area for patterns and signals that may constitute a threat to Hicks.
He had refused the security measures at first, finding it intrusive for a man who had spent most of his life in the shadows. He had managed to stay alive this long without babysitting. He had seen no reason to allow it now.
But the protection came with the job and could not be refused, not even by the Dean. Given the number of people who had tried to kill him in the past few months, Hicks decided an extra set of eyes watching his back might not be a bad idea.
The automatic alert he was reading now proved he had made the right choice.
He tapped the dashboard screen for more information.
TARGET CAR: BMW 750i
TAIL TIME: 30 minutes and counting
SPEED: Matching 70 miles per hour
ERROR: New Jersey license plates do not match VIN on black box
The fact that a car had been behind him for thirty minutes didn’t bother him. People often popped on the cruise control and let the car do the driving in light traffic like this.
It was the problem with the plates that bothered him. They didn’t match the Vehicle Identification Number OMNI detected from the signal on the BMW’s black box. That was unusual. Too unusual for it to be written off as a mistake.
Hicks had been checking his mirrors constantly during the drive south. He hadn’t detected anyone following him, but it was difficult to track a car in the middle of the night.
Hicks tapped a button on the Buick’s steering wheel, accessing the OMNI network. “Get me an Operator.”
“Contacting an Operator,” the female electronic voice answered as it connected him to one of the dozens of technicians located throughout the world who constantly monitored OMNI’s field operations.
A man’s voice, betraying a slight British inflection, came over the Buick’s speakers. OMNI may have been a secure closed network operating entirely on its own bandwidth, but University Operators still answered using a standard protocol script. “You’ve reached the switchboard. How may I help you?”
“This is Professor Warren.” It was the signal that he was not in any immediate danger and free to talk. If he had given them any other name, the Operator would have assumed he was in trouble and activated necessary security measures. Even with twenty-first-century technology, old tricks like code words still had a place. “Looks like I’ve become pretty popular. I need more information.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, sir.” Hicks heard the Operator’s fingers work a keyboard as he accessed OMNI to find his location and the alert that had flashed on the dashboard screen. “I see the nature of the problem now. The plates match the exact make, model, and year of the BMW following you, but the VIN is completely different.”
Hicks knew that ruled out any government agencies following him. They would not need to steal plates for a vehicle.
But someone did.
“Who owns the car, according to the VIN?” He heard the Operator typing. “Records show it was delivered to a BMW dealership in New Jersey late last week.” More clicks. “No record of sale. No stolen car reports with the police, either. It’s possible they stole the car tonight from the dealership after it closed.”
Convenient timing. “Who owns the plates?”
More clicks of the keyboard. “Michael Spatola of Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. Zooming in to get eyes on his address now.” More clicks on the keyboard. “Satellites show his BMW is still parked in his driveway, but the license plates have been removed from the vehicle.”
Hicks kept his eyes on the road. Someone had been smart enough to steal plates matching the same make, model, and year of the vehicle they had just stolen. Even if a cop decided to run the plates, they would be close enough to match and the cop would probably let them go. Both the car and the plates would be reported stolen eventually, but not for several hours.
That kind of pairing took planning and access. It took effort that common car thieves wouldn’t have gone through. And the odds that common car thieves just happened to be following him this long by accident were astronomical.
Everything about the car and the plates showed intent. It showed planning.
Hicks didn’t like it. He needed answers and, under the circumstances, there was only one way to get them.
“Check traffic and toll cams based on my route. I’m looking for a visual of the driver. Send anything you get to my screen.”
Thirty seconds later, the Operator said, “Sending an image to you now.”
Hicks glanced at the screen while keeping his eyes on the road. A blurry image of two white males at a toll booth in the BMW appeared on his dashboard screen. Judging by the way they filled their seats, he guessed they were each over six feet tall and powerfully built.
The Operator explained, “That picture was taken as they blew through an EZ Pass station without an EZ Pass. I’ll keep looking for a clearer image, but that’s all I have for now.”
Hicks didn’t care about clearer pictures. He needed to find out who was driving that car.
“I’m in a generous mood tonight,” Hicks told the Operator, “so let’s do Mr. Spatola a favor. Enter the theft of the plates and the vehicle into the police network. Say the suspects should be considered armed and dangerous and are believed to be heading for the D.C. area.”
More keyboard clicks. “Doing it now, sir.”
Another idea came to him. “Show me the closest patrol unit on my map.”
A few more clicks. “I’ve just posted the location of the closest unit to your position on your map, sir. The blue icon is the closest police car—a county sheriff ’s deputy manning a speed trap approximately three miles and closing from your current position. The tail car is the red icon on your map, while your car is black.”
Hicks would have preferred a state trooper, but at least a county cop wasn’t some local Barney Fife looking to be a hero.
Hicks pulled the gloves tighter on his fingers. “Plot the nearest off-ramp between here and the speed trap. Something that gives me easy access back onto the highway.”
A blue line appeared on the map of his dashboard screen.
“There’s an off-ramp approximately two miles ahead of you, sir, but be advised: you may not be able to outrun the BMW. It’s got a twin 445 horsepower V8 engine. With all due respect, sir, that’s a tough engine for an old Buick to beat.”
Hicks smiled. That’s why I’ve got an Aston Martin V12 engine under the hood. “Consider me advised. Since the alert is already on the system, send a message directly to the deputy’s onboard computer. Tell him the vehicle is heading his way. Let’s see what he does.”
“Doing it now,” the Operator replied. “And good luck, sir.”
Hicks killed the connection. He never believed in luck. Only in himself.
Excerpted from A CONSPIRACY OF RAVENS © Copyright 2017 by Terrence McCauley. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.
About the Author
Terrence McCauley is the award-winning author of two previous James Hicks thrillers: SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and A MURDER OF CROWS, as well as the historical crime thrillers PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN (all available from Polis Books). He is also the author of the World War I novella THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD, the proceeds of which go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund. His story “El Cambalache” was nominated for the Thriller Award by International Thriller Writers.
Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Spintetingler Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Big Pulp and other publications. He is a member of the New York City chapter of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers and the International Crime Writers Association.
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“Stunning set pieces…Solid fare for no-nonsense spy fans.” —Booklist