Authors: Ava Armstrong
Dark Horse Guardians: Book 2
(Sequel to “A Sense of Duty”)
Written by Ava Armstrong
All rights reserved including the right to
reproduce this book or portions there in any
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.
Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
dark horse is a little-known person or thing
that emerges to prominence,
especially in a competition of some sort
or a contestant
that seems unlikely to succeed.
Dark Horse Guardians: Mission in Western Massachusetts
~ Prologue ~
Nate O'Neal drove to his rented unit in the multi-cultural east side of Worcester Massachusetts. It was a rat-infested bed-bug ridden room with a plastic lawn chair and a hammock inside. With his turban, beard, perfectly forged identification documents, and flawless Arabic, Nate made a seamless insertion into the radical Islamic group operating in Worcester over a period of months. Gaining acceptance into the mafia would have been easier. But with the help of Nazmin in Pakistan, Nate gained the confidence of a friend of a friend in the terror cell. Even so, it took many visits to the mosque and the gathering place to gain the level of trust he had attained. These matters took patience. But being a Dark Horse Guardian, Nate had an unlimited amount of patience. He folded up his copy of the latest radical rants published in a magazine titled "Insight." He made sure to flash around the planted articles that linked him to radical groups.
Having served in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly a decade, Nate was well versed with tribal dialects and instantly recognized this group, ISOA (Islamic State of America), as a particularly dangerous affiliate of the Taliban. And, thanks to Nazmin in Pakistan, she made sure there were radical actors on the ground with her who vouched for Nate when inquiries were made by those who were vetting him. As a result, the group eventually welcomed their new brother, Abdullah Almahdi, a.k.a. Nate, especially when he fervently voiced his negative opinions about America. Nate was now an
. A key player in Dark Horse Guardians, he made the fifty-mile journey from Springfield to live in his squalid apartment nearby the city's newest Islamic gathering place, formerly a Catholic church. The gathering place was removed from the mosque, a Spartan cinder-block building about two blocks east, and was known to be the hot spot for terrorist central planning.
Nate took great care to avoid being tailed whenever he left the gathering place, especially if he was to make contact with anyone on his team. All communications were done via an encrypted satellite phone and encrypted laptop never on his person but stored in a secret spot in his rental. If disturbed, an alarm would be triggered on the cell phone he carried and he could destroy the evidence remotely causing it to ignite and burn. He also had the ability to see those coming and going inside his rental unit with his cell phone.
Driving a black Mercedes, Nate affixed a license plate that was registered to a front company with an Islamic name. Every night of this mission he dreamed of slipping out through the back door and driving home to Springfield to his wife. But every night he stayed in the hammock to avoid the bed bugs. Often he slept in the same clothing, as he'd need to be at the mosque for sunrise prayers and the all-important meetings afterwards.
Yet another Mohamed became Nate's patsy. Nate had been cultivating the relationship with Mohamed carefully ever since he arrived. He was painfully aware of how critical this mission was. Many innocent lives hung in the balance and depended on his performance. Worcester Massachusetts, the second largest city in the state, with a population of 200,000 was being targeted for a massive terrorist attack.
Once Nate gained trust, it was Mohamed, the son of the Imam, who showed Nate the bomb map and revealed the plot. The group planned to insert massive amounts of C4 with remote detonators in three soft target areas in the city. To accomplish this, ISOA had embedded members in the security force at each location. Nate found this fact particularly disturbing. The first and most valuable target to the radicals was a beautifully restored theater for the performing arts that seated 2,500 people. Musicals and well-known celebrities performed there to full-house audiences. It would be a big thrill kill for the jihadis, especially with American women and children as victims.
The other major targets were two colleges: The Rugged Cross and Holy Sacrament University. The importance of the bombing plot was three-fold in the terrorists' minds: to execute three attacks simultaneously to overwhelm the first responders, to make the event similar to 9/11 in that it would be massive enough to strike fear into the heart of every American; and lastly to destroy the remaining vestiges of Catholic higher learning in Western Massachusetts. Radical Islamists had a major goal to take over the university system, just as they had already done quietly at the technical schools in the western part of the state and at many universities across America.
It was a Friday night when Nate met with Ben, Elvis, Gus, Tom and Jake in a safe house in Boston. All of them disguised, they took roundabout routes to get to their destination to make sure they weren't being followed. The team had long ago purchased used car rental franchises so the same cars didn't always show up in the same places. Nate had done his homework. He presented the bomb map, targets, and detailed plan to the Dark Horse team. "How do you want to do this, Chief?" Nate asked straight-forwardly. Ben ran his hand over the stubble on his face. "It's a high risk mission. Are you sure the bomb materials are stored in this house in a residential neighborhood?" Nate nodded. "They took me there and walked me through the place. There's enough to take out the entire block. They have four security guards and traps for intruders." Ben honed in on Nate, "What's the date they're planning this for?" Nate nervously exhaled, "June 10
…the graduation date for both schools fall on that day and there's a children's musical playing at the Worcester Center for Performing Arts – it's all going to happen on June 10
Although he already had the Special Activities Division's express permission through Kip Larson to go forward with the mission, there was a moment of silence as Ben gauged the team's commitment to walk into the jaws of death, "Maybe we need to hand this off to the Feds." Every team member looked at Ben like he had just said something incomprehensible. Gus jumped in first, "Are you shittin' me, Chief? You
the Feds. They'll get this so buried in red tape the friggin' terrorists will get away." Nate chimed in, "Yeah, all of my hard work will be considered illegal. They'll just say we can't use the evidence because we didn't have a warrant." Jake, Tom and Elvis agreed all voicing similar opinions. Ben was somber in his final warning, "You all know how dangerous this is going to be…if anything happens to any of us, the CIA will deny we existed. There will be no cavalry to back us up. We're on our own." Every team member nodded giving Ben tacit approval to move into the details of the plan.
"Okay." Ben said. His mind had already brought the details together, "Here's how it's going to go down. The bomb house is going to blow up, but we need to make sure we get the neighborhood cleared just before it blows. We'll need to bring in some cops, at least they'll be
like cops, and have them go door-to-door to evacuate the surrounding homes, saying there's been a chemical spill – a railroad car derailed. I've contacted a handful of old spooks in the area for assistance. They'll get uniforms. The biggest problem is the timing of this will have to be flawless. While the homes are being evacuated, we need to take out the security guards outside of the house. Then trip the bomb house to blow and make sure the terrorists are somehow
when it happens."
Ben was focused like a laser beam. "Nate, you've already been inside the bomb house. Do you think you can get Mohamed to set up a final planning meeting there?" Nate smiled, "Sure, Chief. These idiots are
of their bomb factory hidden in the finest neighborhood of Worcester. They show this off like a prized collection. Now that they trust me, they have asked me to place some of the bombs. They told me this would be the highest honor. I told them I want to die for the cause and that got them
enthused. They want to use me to place the bombs at the theater." Ben smiled, "Perfect. If they trust you that much - that's our in. The date for the meeting will have to be June 8, that's a Sunday night. Nate, you've got to get
all of them
to the bomb house and go over the plan in great detail, take an hour, ask questions. Then, find a way to slip out before it blows. Meanwhile, we will quietly eliminate the security guards and surround the house with our guys dressed just like them. I'll plant the charges. Once we are two blocks away, I'll detonate with the remote and we'll watch the fireworks and hope to God no innocent people get hurt. I think it's the only way. There can't be any evidence of us being there, so wear gloves and leave nothing behind."
Queen Anne style home sat on a wide manicured lot and the concussive wave blew the windows out of nearby houses, but those homes were empty thanks to the quick evacuation. Nothing short of spectacular, the impact was ground-shaking. The fire could be seen for miles. There were more bomb-making materials in the stately single family home than any of them estimated. Bombs, missiles, grenades, RPG's and other highly flammable substances were lighting up the night sky as Ben, Nate, Elvis, Jake and Gus drove calmly away into the night in a black Mercedes SUV, now with a different license plate.
The mission went exactly as planned. There was no collateral damage, other than homes being destroyed, and all of the terrorists were blown to bits. No Dark Horse evidence was left behind. Ben's intel from Nazmin in Pakistan was accurate right down to the letter. Nate O'Neal's insertion into the group went undetected. Through careful months of planning and reconnaissance the mission was flawlessly executed. Ben smiled
to himself but did not celebrate with his men until much later.
The large cash drop was made to Ben in the back of an out-of-town coffee shop by Kip Larson. "Thanks, Chief," Larson quipped his dark eyes gleamed with satisfaction. "All in a night's work," Ben said void of emotion, "on to the next…." Ben made sure to position his back to the security camera. The baseball cap, wig, and sunglasses concealed his identity. With the duffle bag slung over his shoulder, he made his way home. Over the next few months, he would make small deposits and Seamus would move the money around on a regular schedule. The payment would eventually end up in the secret bunker. Each Dark Horse Guardian
was paid in cash.
~ End Prologue ~
~ Lara ~
Lara Reagan O'Connell had written her new legal name,
Mrs. Benjamin Keegan
for the first time. She was in line at the Portland post office to mail thank you notes. How could she ever express the gratitude she felt toward friends and family for dropping everything in their lives to fly to St. John Island for her perfect beach wedding in April? Lara smiled as a young woman in an army T-shirt and jeans behind the counter noticed the return address, “Mrs. Benjamin Keegan? Are you married to the
Lieutenant Ben Keegan?
" Nodding, Lara listened to the young woman speak about Ben as if he was a rock star. The clerk gushed, “I’ve
him. He’s a great guy, a hero, actually. He helped me get this job.” Lara felt honored every time someone said something wonderful like that to her about Ben.
Today she was looking forward to meeting
her mother for lunch. They met at the usual spot with the antique neon sign that formed the simple word, “Lunch.” After ordering cheeseburgers and taking a number she sat with her mother at a table for two. Lara’s mother asked, “How’s everything?” Lara smiled, “Couldn’t be better. You know, Mom, I’m still blown away that Ben planned the whole wedding without tipping his hand. I’ve never been so pleasantly surprised in my life. By handling the wedding details he did me an enormous favor. It was as if Ben
I would have been filled with anxiety if I had to plan it. Ben's handling of the event was masterful. I stepped into the scene on the beach as an actress stepping upon a stage. I applied lipstick and everything flowed perfectly.” Lara knew Ben's organizational skills came from a decade of military training, especially as a Navy SEAL Lieutenant. He was a tactical guy in every sense of the word. It was second nature for him to put together a detailed plan and execute it flawlessly, even if it was his
. Lara’s mother laughed. “He’s a wonderful man. And, it’s so obvious that he loves you.”
Lara was in awe of the man she had married. She was close to Ben for eight months before the wedding, but she had never met a man like him. Although Ben did not view himself as a hero in any sense of the word, Lara and many others held him in the highest esteem. Ben did not even
the word "hero." The Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, the Silver Star and Medal of Valor were tucked away in his bureau drawer. He never said anything about them. He told her they meant something to the top brass in the military food chain. But to him they were colored ribbons and pieces of metal, reminders of four occasions where he nearly met his maker. Not that he disrespected the pomp and circumstance that went with the awards, for Ben had a deep respect for military tradition. It was the glue that held the brotherhood together. However, she was learning that Ben genuinely
to be in the spotlight. His service wasn't about him. It was about something much bigger.
Ben was the most selfless and giving person Lara had ever met. And though he would not admit it, he was idolized in the intelligence community. When Lara went with Ben to the roadhouse, she was keenly aware of how the other military guys regarded him. There was always a drink sent to his table before he even sat down. Knowing he didn't drink alcohol, a frothy root beer would arrive, sometimes with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. Many of the marines, air force pilots, sailors, army enlisted, men and women from all branches, would greet him when he walked into the roadhouse. Just getting from the door to his table took ten minutes. And, he never sat alone for long. Four or five guys would immediately drop by and often a female soldier would be in the mix. Ben would engage them and Lara noticed how he made them feel comfortable. Ben’s thoughts and feelings could be read through his
expressive blue eyes. Thus when fellow soldiers approached him, his eyes welcomed them. Their talks usually revolved around sports, current news items, and sometimes Ben would be challenged to a game of pool. He stayed off politics, knowing that most of the people in the room didn't want to discuss a subject so complex and riddled with differences of opinion.
Lara was touched by Ben's dedication and concern especially for returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan struggling with their transition to a normal life, whatever
was. Since the bottom dropped out of the economy the country suffered with a high unemployment rate. This was even higher amongst returning vets. But of most concern for Ben was the twenty-five percent suicide rate. Lara witnessed his deep concern for his fellow brothers and sisters. Many warriors suffered loss of limbs, burns, permanent spinal injuries, head trauma, along with sleeping disorders and PTS. Ben didn't call it PTSD, because he said, in his opinion, it wasn't technically a disorder. He explained to Lara that
traumatic event, such as having your house burn down or being in a terrible accident, could trigger post-traumatic stress. Although Ben hadn't lost a limb, he had multiple surgeries, had been captured twice and survived torture. He was personally familiar with sleeping disorders and PTS.
Ben actually helped Lara
overcome her PTS issues that lingered from the brutal beating and rape she suffered in middle school. The fact that Ben even got her to
of the horrible event was testament to his patience and understanding. At first she feared that Ben would recoil in horror when he learned that she murdered her attacker. But, he knew about it long before meeting her and actually understood her tactical move. He didn't judge her. And, for the first time in her life, Lara forgave herself. It was Ben’s logical explanation that put things into focus. “You were being stalked and hunted like prey after already having survived one brutal attack.” He went on with reason, “The legal remedy left much to be desired. Nothing legally could have been done to protect you from a second attack except for a restraining order. The police were virtually helpless. The sick bastard stalking you would need to make his move again. And, if he got his hands around your throat a second time, he surely would have taken your life.” Ben was one of the only people Lara confided in about the rape and beating, other than social workers, Rusty, Don and Olivia. But, Lara felt in her heart that no one
understood her actions better than Ben. He compared her experience to one of the times he was captured in battle. He told Lara that even though he escaped, he sought retribution. Later that month with wounds still fresh, he hunted his captors down one-by-one like the animals that they were and executed each one of them with Moshe by his side. Ben understood
Lara witnessed the kindness and compassion of Ben's heart in everything he did. Even in small ways, Ben acted as a conduit connecting his fellow soldiers to one another and to influential people in the community. Lara noticed that Ben carried business cards in his jacket and
compiled lists of names on his phone. Among them were phone numbers for a couple of local counselors who were especially good with veterans and their unique needs, especially depression. He was painfully aware how depression could spiral out of control and end up with suicidal thoughts, then actions. Even though every soldier did not suffer the effects of PTS, Ben encouraged his fellow veterans to get service dogs. He talked about Einstein frequently and how the dog helped regulate his sleeping habits. He also connected the returning vets to local employers in the community where he knew of job openings or schools that offered training with guaranteed job placement. A positive force, Ben always spoke of their strengths and special gifts. He had the ability to bring out the best in people, even when they were in the throes of despair.
The military people at the roadhouse knew Ben was a contractor working for the U.S. government and that he taught at the university, but didn’t know much beyond that. Many assumed he was a bodyguard to someone famous and that was exactly what he wanted them to think. It was an unspoken agreement that his work would not be discussed. They knew that he provided security – he was a guardian – period. That satisfied people and he would invariably change the subject to discuss
lives. Everyone needed someone to listen and Ben was a good audience. He did not make harsh judgments and he did not push his advice. But he would always listen. If someone asked for his help he would offer suggestions. More than anything, Lara admired the patience and kindness he showed to these veterans who were living lives of quiet desperation.
As for her life,
her newly formed renovation business was hopping. Lara was now up to her neck in renovations on the beautiful purple Victorian, now Eric Henderson's home. It was the place Ben once said he would buy for her. They no longer walked by the stunning Victorian on their daily strolls with Einstein. Lara's relationship with Eric was now strictly business. When Ben found out about Eric sending texts and photos to his ex-wife to derail his divorce, he wanted to confront Eric Henderson and beat him to a pulp. But after a lengthy discussion with Lara, Ben reasoned that violence would solve nothing. Lara convinced Ben the best revenge was living well. So, she agreed to do the renovation of Eric's purple Victorian but was charging him
. Eric signed the contract for the extensive renovation and agreed to everything.
Nevertheless, Lara remained aware that Ben was more than sensitive about her being around Eric. In fact, Ben had launched into a detailed explanation about how guys just don't
a girl they were in love with. Ben was concerned that Lara never gave Eric the time and distance to emotionally move on. To make the situation more agreeable, Lara made sure whenever possible Monique accompanied her on visits to the purple Victorian. This arrangement seemed to lessen Ben's insecurity about the project.
Her phone rang and
the bubbly voice on the other end was Lara’s intern, Monique, “Bonjour!” Energetic and intelligent, she was a petite blonde girl with a French background, and aspirations to be a famous designer. Filled with enthusiasm, Monique had just finished her bachelor's degree and was starting her master's. She signed a contract to intern with Lara for the next twenty-four months. Lara replied, “Bonjour! What’s up?” Monique ran through the coming week’s appointments in great detail, “Just double-checking everything.” After twenty minutes, the phone call ended. That’s what Lara liked about Monique, she was thorough and always planning ahead.
The doorbell buzzed and unexpectedly the florist
handed Lara a beautiful bouquet of fresh pink Peonies in a cut-glass vase. She softly fingered the delicate blossoms while inhaling the fresh scent. They were nothing short of stunning. Unable to suppress a smile she slipped open the tiny card. "
I can't stop thinking about you…love, Ben
" was scrawled in his handwriting. He always sent flowers when she least expected them. He was constantly jotting simple little notes to her on the chalkboard in the kitchen. She kept the grocery list there for him, and his replies were sometimes hilarious.
cook dinner and have you for dessert!"
These little communiqués always made her smile. Some days she would find a piece of paper folded and tucked into the front pocket of her leather sack simply saying,
I love you, my darlin'
and it would momentarily take her breath away knowing he was thinking of her the moment he rose before sunrise. There were times when she wondered if it would always be like this with Ben, romantic and exciting. It was as if each day her love for him grew even deeper, if that was possible.
As Lara gathered the mail from the receptacle on the porch, she noticed an interesting little package had arrived for Ben. She turned the small parcel over to read the return address.
Toronto, it was from Ben's son, William. She knew William's handwriting. Ben had been phoning his son on a regular basis ever since the divorce was final. Oddly enough, the divorce actually brought father and son closer together. Father's Day was fast approaching and Lara imagined William might have sent a small gift to Ben. Whatever it was, she knew Ben would open it with curiosity as soon as he laid eyes upon it. She knew he wanted to strengthen his bond with William.
~ Ben ~
The services that Ben's Dark Horse Guardians had to offer were highly sought after by several intelligence agencies around the world. Countries surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan were seeking his services to root out several particularly evil terrorist groups. Ben was careful not to take on more than he could handle. His focus was to fight terror on American soil in a quiet clandestine manner. For the past few weeks
he’d been busy stocking his inventory with the latest technology. Rusty's bunker beneath the gun range was now filled with surveillance cameras, fake passports, night vision goggles, fixed blade knives, the newest Kevlar body armor, devices to hack and interrupt electronic signals, a wide array of firearms, silencers, ammo, secure digital radios, satellite phones, and M14.7.62 semi-automatic machine guns. These powerful 7.62 rounds had an 800 yard range and a 20 round magazine. He loaded the long guns with all the bells and whistles: lasers, scopes, and grenade launchers. His favorite new surveillance device was a drone the size of a dragonfly. The reconnaissance photographs it provided were high definition and the GPS provided pinpoint accuracy. He wasn't preparing for battle in the Hindu Kush but would utilize many of these tools in his surveillance and elimination of targets on American soil.