Thomas Calabrese … The smell of human waste, mold and decay was stifling in the barely lit warehouse that had been turned into a makeshift prison and detention center. A young man was chained by his wrists to the wall as one guard tortured him with an electric cattle prod then waited while another sadistic individual took great pleasure in pummeling him with the powerful water stream from a firehose.
Suddenly, Tim Charlton sprang up in bed, panting heavily, looked around at the familiar surroundings and wiped the sweat from his eyes with the palm of his hand. This nightmare seemed more real than the many others before it and it took him almost a minute before his heartbeat returned to normal. Tim was thirty years old and had been out of the Marine Corps only eighteen months, after serving a ten years enlistment.
Charlton Crane and Rigging was started in 1946 by Tim’s great-grandfather, Charles Charlton. It had several locations in the West that included; Las Vegas, Phoenix and San Jose. The main headquarters was in San Marcos, California where it had numerous military contracts including three long term construction projects on Camp Pendleton.
Tim was an expert rigger and crane operator, having learned the business from the ground up as a little boy under the expert tutelage of his grandfather and father. Charlton Crane and Rigging was a very successful business and family oriented endeavor. Tim’s father, mother and younger sister worked in the San Marcos office and he had uncles, aunts and cousins employed in the other cities. Most of the non-related employees had been with the company so long, that they were considered family. Everybody did their best to maintain the highest level of professionalism and the company’s excellent reputation and high profitability reflected their successful efforts.
The Charlton Family owned a large ten acre estate in North Escondido with a six thousand square foot custom built house and three small guest cottages. Tim made an excellent income as a rigger and crane operator and had more than enough savings to buy his own home, but he loved his family and enjoyed where he grew up and saw no reason to leave. He lived in one of the cottages and his sister Jenny, who was eight years younger, lived in another, just down the access road from him. The family had a full time staff which included a cook, two maids and three gardeners.
The best description of the Charlton’s was an upper middle class family, who worked hard, lived well and were extremely generous with local charities, especially animal rescue groups and veterans’ organizations.
Tim was working as the superintendent on a project at Area 25, Vada Del Rio, on Camp Pendleton when he received a call from his mother, Shannon in the late afternoon, “Hey mom, what’s up?”
“We didn’t hear from you and Maria wasn’t sure about setting a place for you at the table tonight.”
Family members made it standard procedure to notify the family cook of their dinner plans, so as not to make extra work for her or waste food.
“We ran into an unexpected problem with a frayed cable and I didn’t want to take any chances so we’re replacing it. I guess I lost track of time,” Tim explained then added, “I’ll be more time conscious in the future.”
Shannon laughed, “I’m not calling because I’m upset, I’ll make you a plate and you can eat when you get home.”
“You are welcome…be careful… love you.” Shannon answered.
“Love you too.” Tim answered.
Shannon had only been off the phone a minute when her husband, Andy entered, “Did you hear from Tim?”
“I just got off the phone with him…he’s running late,” Shannon answered.
“That Pendleton job is a mess because the general contractor is not passing his routine inspections and that is putting the construction behind schedule,” Andy commented as he poured himself a cold glass of lemonade.
“We’re still billing them for our time, even if our guys are just sitting around” Shannon reminded her husband.
“I know, but it’s still better for job morale when things go smoothly.”
“Do you ever wonder what did we do right to get a son like Tim?” Shannon smiled.
“I wonder that all the time especially when I hear horror stories about other families and the troubles they have with their sons and daughters. If I had an explanation on how we got so lucky, I’d sell the formula.”
Before Andy and Shannon could continue, their daughter, Jenny entered, and they stopped talking, “I didn’t interrupt something, did I?”
“We were just talking about your brother,” Andy answered.
“Let me guess, he’s running late…first guy at the jobsite and the last one to leave.”
“How was school?” Shannon asked.
Jenny was a senior at Cal State Marcos, majoring in business and finance, “An opportunity presented itself today.”
“You got a VIP pass to Comic Com,” Andy joked, “they needed a stand-in for Wonder Woman.”
“You’re so kind,” Jenny smiled, “My friend Lisa was approved to study abroad, but her mom had a fall and broke her leg. They were scheduled to go together for the six week program and make a vacation out of it, but her mom can’t travel now and Lisa doesn’t feel right leaving her behind.”
“That’s a shame, she must really be disappointed,” Shannon said.
“Very much so,” Jenny answered, “We went to the counselor in charge of the Study Abroad Program and they said I could go in her place if I wanted to.”
“There are a lot of problems in Europe right now, I’d really be worried if you went,” Andy said.
“Me too,” Shannon seconded, “When would you have to leave if you did go?”
“Three weeks,” Jenny answered.
“That is really short notice,” Shannon sighed.
“But it is a good opportunity,” Jenny said, “and it would be very nice to have it on my resume if I decided to apply for the MBA program.”
“What country would you be going to?” Andy asked.
“Germany,” Jenny replied.
“They’ve got more problems with refugees and terror cells than most other places,” Shannon’s voice had a cautionary tone.
“You are old enough to make this decision on your own and we can’t stop you if you’re bound and determined to go,” Andy answered, “but…”
“Obviously I won’t go, if you don’t want me too,” Jenny smiled.”
“There is another option,” Shannon interjected as a thought flashed through her mind.
“What would that be?” Jenny asked, “I know that devious look on your face.”
When Tim entered the house later that evening, all eyes turned to him, “What?” he asked.
It was three weeks later and the Charlton Family was at the San Diego Airport, “If you have any problems or questions about the job, call me, I put international calling on my phone,” Tim said, “I was gone for ten years and now six weeks seems like a long time to be away.”
Andy joked, “We’ll try and survive without you, but it won’t be easy.”
“Most important thing, always be alert and careful and if you have enough time after that, then enjoy yourself,” Shannon said.
“We’ll try to keep our priorities straight,” Tim replied.
Shannon hugged her daughter and son and choked back a sob.
“We’ll call as soon as when we land,” Jenny promised, “don’t worry, we’ll be fine.”
After Tim and Jenny boarded their Luftansa flight and were in their seats, Jenny lightly kissed her brother on the cheek as a token of appreciation.
What was that for?” Tim asked.
“I had a visit to Germany on my bucket list,” Tim casually answered, “this was just a little earlier than I planned on going back…I mean going for the first time, now I can cross it off.”
“Sure you did,” Jenny replied.
“You would do the same for me,” Tim lightly touched his sister’s hand.
“Well…maybe…maybe not,” Jenny teased.
The non- stop flight from San Diego to Berlin was smooth and landed on time. Tim and Jenny caught a cab from the airport to Berlin’s Central Train Station and purchased their tickets on the Allersberg Express for the six hour trip to Munich. Tim was glancing out the window and started feeling queasy and began perspiring.
Jenny touched his arm, “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, don’t worry about me,” Tim rubbed the numbness out of his hands and fingers.
“Let’s go to the dining car, we haven’t eaten since we left the states.”
“Sure, sounds good,” Tim agreed.
As they walked to the dining car, Tim’s mindset had switched from casual tourist to hyper vigilance with each person that he passed. After Jenny sat down, Tim slowly scanned the entire dining car and saw four men enter sitting at the table closest to the exit. His situational awareness capabilities were so extraordinary that he was able to detect slight variations in normal behavior and do a threat assessment in a matter of seconds. Tim noticed the men sitting with their hands on their laps instead of on the table. He also picked up on the way one man licked his lips nervously while another rolled his head to alleviate the tension in his neck. Tapping of feet was intermittent by all four individuals.
“Are you going to sit down?” Jenny asked.
“Oh yeah,” Tim slowly lowered himself into his chair, then picked up the sterling silverware spoon and held it in just the right position where he could see the reflection of the four men behind him.
Jenny focused her attention on the menu, “Let me see what I want,” and did not notice that Tim had gotten up, and was walking toward the four men with a fork in his left hand and a knife in his right. He stood next to their table and alternated making eye contact with each man until the man closest to him snarled in Arabic, “YA EBEN SHA MOO-TA!” which translated to; son of a b…..”
Tim smiled and responded, “YA KA-LIB,” which translates to; you dog.
The man jumped up and pulled out a long bladed knife and slashed at Tim, who sidestepped the attack then jammed the tableware knife, he was holding through the top of the attacker’s head. When a second man reached for a small handgun, Tim stuck the fork through the man’s Adam Apple. The last two men came at Tim, and he elbowed one of them in the face then kicked the other one in the knee with such force that he broke the femur, tibia and fibula bone with one powerful strike.
Jenny walked over, looking dumfounded then stammered, “Where did you learn to do this?”
Tim shrugged nonchalantly, “They teach a few things about self- defense in the Marines.”
Tim and Jenny were questioned for six hours. At the conclusion of the interrogation, officials extended their heartfelt appreciation for thwarting a terrorist attack and saving the lives of many of the passengers on the Allersberg Express in the process.
Director John Baxter was sitting in his office at the American Annex of Interpol Counter Terrorism Strike Force in Brussels, Belgium when Senior Agent Chuck Larabee entered and sat down across from him, “You wanted to see me.”
“There was a terrorist attack on the Allersberg Express,” John Baxter said.
“I know, an American tourist, former Marine stopped it,” Chuck replied.
“You ever hear about the Seven Pillars Protocol?”
“Can’t say that I have,” Chuck answered.
John Baxter continued, “The selection process was based on a computer program that thoroughly evaluated mental and physical attributes from potential applicants. Thousands of individuals applied, but only seven were selected; five men and two women. Hence the name, Seven Pillars. It was also called the Human Drone Experiment. These seven individuals were part of an elite counter terrorism unit where a prototype chip that enhanced human intelligence was surgically implanted into their brains and an alternate identity was encrypted into the program. The latest Intel was uploaded every time they went out on a mission and when they got back, their regular memories were substituted in its place, no regrets and no security breaches.”
“I didn’t know we had that kind of technology?” Chuck Larabee marveled.
“It was cutting edge. Of the seven, six were killed in the line of duty and the unit was de-sanctioned and the last surviving member who’s alternate identity was Nicholas Lightener had his chip removed. He went back to the states, supposedly never knowing anything about the black ops he had been involved in. I recommended his termination because he was too much of a liability, but I was overruled by my superior.”
“So you said Nicholas Lightener went back to the states?” Chuck asked.
John Baxter pointed to the photograph of Tim Charlton in the newspaper, “Nick Lightning…that is what we used to call him….he was the best and the most dangerous of them all and now he is back.”
“So what is he doing in Germany?” Chuck asked.
“The most important thing is that he doesn’t leave.”
Tim and Jenny checked into the Hotel Metropol and were ready for a good night’s sleep when the phone rang and Tim picked it up, “Yes,” and listened for several seconds, “Okay, I’ll be right down,” and hung up the phone.
“Who was that?” Jenny asked.
“Somebody from the American consulate, they have a few questions about what happened on the train.”
“I thought we answered everything already,” Jenny said.
“That was with the Germans, now it’s with the Americans,” Tim answered.
“Want me to go with you?”
“You get some rest,” Tim smiled, “I’m sure it’s just routine, besides you got a busy day tomorrow and I can catch up on my sleep later.”
Tim left the hotel room and walked down the hall to the elevator. He pressed the down button and when the door opened, he pressed the lobby button, but instead of getting in, he took the stairs. When Tim got to the Lobby, he slowly opened the door and scanned the lobby and saw four men in different locations of the lobby, all trying to look nonchalant. When the elevator door opened, they instinctively looked toward it, which confirmed Tim’s suspicions.
Tim ran back up to his third floor room and wasted no time, “Jenny, I need you to trust me and do exactly like I say without asking any questions,”
“I can do that,” Jenny answered without hesitation.
“We need to go.”
“I’ll pack,” Jenny suggested.
“Don’t have time; it’s us they want, not our clothes.” Tim said.
“I will be asking pertinent questions at a later date,” Jenny promised, “Count on that.”
As they were leaving the room, the elevator door opened, Tim pushed Jenny behind a maid’s cart and bent down and pretended to tie his shoe. When the men were right beside him, Tim stood up and pulled the gun from holster of the man nearest him and shot all three before they could react.
“I believed you when you said you learned self- defense in the Marines, but this is beyond that. These guys don’t look like terrorists to me,” Jenny said.
“They are just as bad, we’ve got to move, there is still one left,” Tim warned.
They went back to their room, quickly packed their belongings and went downstairs. When they got to the lobby, Tim noticed the fourth man standing by the entrance to the hotel, “Stay here,” and placed his sister on a couch next to the front desk, “I’ll signal when it is clear,” Tim cautiously weaved his way among the hotel guests without detection until he was next to the man at the entrance. He punched the man in the back then pulled his weapon from his holster, “Cooperate and you will live through this.”
The man grimaced, “No problem, I get paid to do a job, not to be a hero.”
Tim waved to his sister and she walked over to the entrance, “Where did you park?” Tim asked the man.
The man gestured with a nod of his head to the black Mercedes parked outside. Tim took the man’s cellphone and ordered, “You drive,” then got in the front seat while Jenny got in the back. When he thought Tim was momentarily distracted, the man took the opportunity to reach for the weapon. Tim slapped his hand away, then hit him across the left ear with the barrel of the weapon and slammed his forehead against the steering wheel, “What part of cooperating, didn’t you understand?”
“I had to try once,” The man rubbed his head and stuck a tissue against his bloody ear, “I won’t do it again…that’s for sure.”
Tim looked at the man’s cellphone call log, “Tell them the job is done and the other three didn’t make it, nothing else?”
“Sure,” The man replied a little quickly.
“No code words, if I don’t believe you, you’re dead.”
“Yes sir,” The man quickly complied and called in, “It’s done, lost three,”
“Confirmed,” Came the voice from the other end.
“Start driving, I’ll tell you when to stop.” Tim ordered and the man drove east for twenty minutes, “This is far enough, get out.”
Tim and the man walked into the darkness of a horse pasture while Jenny waited nervously in the car. When they got a hundred yards from the car, the man turned to Tim, “If you’re going to kill me then let’s get it over with.”
Tim smiled, “We all have exit plans in this business when thing go south, it’s time to use yours.”
“Thanks, sounds like good advice,” The man sighed in relief then quickly disappeared into the dense foliage, happy for a reprieve.
When Tim got back to the car, Jenny asked, “Did you kill him?”
“Why would you think that?”
“Because that is all you’ve been doing since we got to Europe.” Jenny replied.
“He’s fine…just got a long walk ahead of him,” Tim said as he got into the driver’s seat, “men like him are never too far away from getting killed, if I wasn’t me tonight, it will be somebody else tomorrow.”
“Where to now?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know how far that is from here, but now is as good a time as any to tell me what’s going on.”
The drive from Munich, Germany to Brussels, Belgium was 375 miles and it took Tim almost eight hours to drive the distance. In that amount of time, he told his sister everything about the Seven Pillars program and his involvement in it.
“You took a big chance coming back to Europe,” Jenny said.
“I couldn’t let you come alone, besides I was getting tired looking of over my shoulder,” Tim said, “those terrorists on the train, excuse the pun, derailed my plan of keeping a low profile.”
“What are we doing here in Brussels?” Jenny asked.
“There is one man that I can trust, I need to find him.”
When Marine Corps Major General Russell “Big Grizzly” Baer, Commanding Officer, Marine Corps Forces, Europe and Africa entered his heavily guarded private quarters, he sensed something was wrong and instinctively walked over to his nightstand and pulled out his Glock 17 and looked around, but did not see anything. Little did General Baer know that Tim had found a section of the ornately decorated ceiling where he could suspend himself by his hands and feet. He jumped down and landed right behind the Marine.
General Baer spun around with his pistol, pointing at Tim’s head, “That’s an excellent way to get yourself killed.”
“Not with that Glock,” Tim smiled, “there was a time that you used to be able to tell the difference between a loaded and unloaded weapon…the good ole’ days.”
General Baer popped out the ammo clip and saw that it was empty, “Nothing like being a bureaucrat to dull your senses, but I can see that you haven’t lost your skills to get in secure locations.”
“I’ve tried to put that part of my life behind me, but my nightmares won’t let me. Listen to this and see if you recognize the voice,” Tim played the man’s voice saying, Confirmed.
“John Baxter,” General Baer answered without hesitation.
“He sent some men to kill me,” Tim said.
“It’s your own fault for not staying in California,” General Baer said.
“Is that the best you got, General?” Tim spit on the floor in disgust, “I guess a lot things have changed, I remember a time when honor and duty meant something to you.”
“Watch your mouth, I can call my guards and have you arrested!” General Baer threatened.
“And I can kill you before they get to me…looks like a standoff, so who is going to blink first?”
“Point taken,” General Baer said.
“Baxter was involved in the ambush that got my team killed. I was tortured for two days by Iranian operatives and they would have had my head on a stick if you didn’t call in a drone strike. Remember what you told me after they dragged me out of the rubble?”
“I said, don’t kill him,” General Baer mumbled.
“Damn right! You ordered me to let a treasonous murderer live and that I needed to see the big picture for the protection of the country. You also said some other stupid crap about keeping enemies close!” Tim snapped back.
“Don’t forget that in return for doing that, I got them to agree not to go after you and your family in California. At the time, it was the best deal that you were going to get,” General Baer answered.
“So what about now, you still feel the same way?” Tim asked.
“Politics and military strategy have a way of changing with the passing of time, I have another proposition that I’m sure you’ll find more to your liking,” General Baer suggested.
Jenny was waiting for her brother in the Mercedes after he returned from his meeting with General Baer, “How did things go with your friend?”
“Better than I expected, I hate to disappoint you, but it’s going to be too unsafe to do your internship program while I’m taking care of this matter,” Tim said.
“No problem, this is an education in itself,” Jenny smiled.
General Baer made arrangements for Tim and Jenny to hide at a safe house in Lake Como, Italy, while John Baxter became increasingly frustrated that no matter how many resources he directed toward finding Nicholas Lightener, he was not able to locate him. John Baxter’s arrogance was only exceeded by his deviant behavior and he was a regular at a brothel in Antwerp that catered to individuals of his perverted persuasion. He was at his private suite one evening, waiting for his partner to arrive when a masked individual entered. John Baxter smiled in anticipation as the masked man walked over, grabbed him by the neck and injected uxamethonium chloride, a medication used to cause short-term paralysis into his forearm vein. John Baxter stopped breathing and asphyxiated himself in a matter of seconds. The masked man exited the building, walked into the shadows and took off his mask. It was hard to be sure exactly who it was, but there was a striking resemblance to the infamous, Nick Lightning.
Things returned to normal after Tim and Jenny returned to California. The family was enjoying their evening dinner, “I got this call today from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and they approved our proposal for the demolition of the San Onofre twin reactor domes,” Shannon said. “They told me it was ten years of work at prevailing wages.”
“Congratulations,” Andy said, “Great job, honey!”
“Except that I never submitted a proposal and nobody at the office knows anything about it,” Shannon responded with a shrug.
Jenny gave a knowing wink to her brother.
“Not to change the subject, but along those similar lines, I talked to my former Commanding Officer and he said that the Marines were short of people with my technical skills and asked if I’d be interesting in assisting on special projects when they come up,” Tim explained, “I agreed to do it.”
Jenny said, “Look like a storm is headed our way.”
Andy looked out the window and didn’t see a cloud in the bright blue skies over Escondido, “What makes you say that?”
“Because there’s a forecast for lightning strikes, “Jenny smiled.