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“Underdogs have turned empires into ashes. We’re going to build ours from the embers.”
—Don Antonio Moretti
“Sometimes, you have to use evil to fight evil.”
—Marine Sergeant Ronaldo Salvatore
The black Mercedes pulled up in front of one of the oldest basilicas in Naples, built with remnants of a far older Roman temple. Antonio Moretti imagined how soldiers might have looked back then: the leather armor, muscular bodies, short swords gripped in callused hands. His own soldiers concealed their weapons beneath black suits. The difference in appearance was striking when he pictured it, but he supposed their minds were not so different. They had the same worries: protecting leader and family, making a living, surviving. In that regard, not much had changed over two millennia in the ancient city.
A Moretti soldier opened the back door, and Antonio stepped out, ignoring the demonstrators shouting across the street, and the signs insulting his family. He turned instead to the towering basilica of San Paolo Maggiore.
The exterior facade blocked the waning sunlight, but he kept his sunglasses over his eyes as he got out of the car. He didn’t want his family or his comrades to see him like this. He was respected as a hard man, and on these streets, respect was the currency that mattered most.
Growing up in the slums not so far from here had made a man of him early in life. Four tours of duty with the Italian Fourth Alpini Paratroopers Regiment in Afghanistan and Iraq further toughened and tempered his character. And working for the Moretti family organization had strengthened it with blood.
But tonight, he was going in blind. Nothing had prepared him for burying his father, gunned down by a rival mafioso outside a local café.
Antonio did a quick scan for threats, though he was surrounded by men who would take a bullet for him and his family. That hadn’t been enough to save his father, however, and they still didn’t know which of the rival families was responsible.
“Antonio,” said a rough voice.
Another car had pulled up, and several men in tailored black suits got out. At the lead was his younger and only brother, Chris- topher, also a veteran of the Fourth Alpini. They both had left their home as younger men to fight in a war, only to come home to another war.
They embraced with a kiss on the cheek, and Christopher turned back to the car to let out his wife, Greta, and their ten-year- old son.
“Help your mother, Vinny,” Christopher said.
Raffaello Tursi, a quiet soldier with a rosary in one hand, walked over. He was one of the Moretti family’s most loyal soldiers, a man who had never married and had given himself to the business and to God.
“Area is secure,” he said.
Lucia, the embodiment of elegance and grace, stepped down onto the street. She leaned in and unbuckled their three-year-old son, Marco.
He smiled, revealing two rows of perfect little square teeth.
Antonio kissed his son on the forehead, just below his thick black hair, which matched Lucia’s dress and every article of clothing Antonio could see.
Raff instructed the other Moretti soldiers, who formed a phalanx around the two families as they walked toward the stone steps. Antonio helped his wife up the flights to the basilica’s massive front door.
The guards accompanying them weren’t the only armed men here. A pair of police officers stood sentry near the two ancient Corinthian columns that had survived wars from Roman times to twentieth-century aerial bombardment.
Inside the historic church, candlelight danced over the front foyer as Antonio stopped to dip his finger in holy water and make the sign of the cross. It had been a long time since he stepped into a holy place. The same guilt he always felt was with him today. Part of him believed he didn’t deserve to be here after all the things he had done, all the men he had killed for his country and for his family.
The beauty of the ancient frescoes depicting the lives of Saints Peter and Paul helped ease his troubled mind as two police officers checked him for weapons.
He held up his arms and gave them each a glare. Today, he was in no mood to deal with these assholes.
“You’re clear,” said one of the guards. He motioned for Antonio to continue to a table where three more officers watched the guests.
There would be no final ride across the city for the family, and no pallbearers for the casket of Stefano Moretti. With all the violence among the other crime families in the city, it was just too dangerous. No one was safe, and the escalating war was going to get a lot worse now.
Little Marco looked over at his father with eyes full of wonder and curiosity. Antonio had long ago decided he would protect the boy’s innocence and give him a childhood and a future away from all the bloodshed and crime.
A future unburdened by worries of war.
Christopher and his family were cleared through security, and together the two families set off down the central nave decorated with golden archways, carved marble columns, and a vaulted roof of magnificent frescoes. Passing through the transept, they gazed up at the polygonal apse covered in ornate paintings. Even little Marco seemed impressed, staring at the dazzling semidome above them.
The splendid art and the tone of hushed awe in the basilica, and the sight of his beautiful family already sitting in the row of reserved seats near the altar did nothing to mollify Antonio’s indignation at the closed casket. The bastards who did this hadn’t stopped with a bullet to the heart, but had riddled his father’s face as a further insult.
The macabre thought seemed blasphemous in this holy space, but Antonio didn’t care. He had long given up any ideas of getting to heaven. Only endless fire and pain awaited his soul.
“Antonio,” said a gravelly voice.
The words came from cousin Lino De Caro. At first glance, standing there in his bespoke suit—if you ignored the gold hoops in his ears—he might almost pass for a banker or financial advisor, but the expensive drapery hid the ropy muscle, tattoos, and scars that reflected Lino’s violent past.
He was the Moretti family assassin, and his well-honed skills would soon be put to work. Sitting to his right was another seasoned killer, their husky cousin Zachary Moretti. Both were made members of Antonio and Christopher’s crew, much higher in rank than the grunt associates who had escorted them inside.
Raff ushered Antonio and his family to their row of seats. “Be good, little man,” he whispered to Marco as Lucia carried him past.
Antonio shuffled over to make room for Christopher and his family while Raff knelt to pray.
Soldiers Frankie Trentino and Carmine Barese sat with their Moretti wives on Antonio’s left. The rough-looking men both had long hair, slicked back tonight, and weathered faces. They scooted down the row, the scent of cologne and cigarettes drifting off their suits.
“Ciao,” Antonio said.
Carmine, also a Veteran of the Italian military, forced a smile across his droopy, scared face—the result of a grenade that had nearly killed him.
The two Moretti made men embraced Antonio in turn, giving murmured condolences. Then they, too, knelt for their prayers. More guests arrived to pay their respects, filing into the basilica, slowly making their way through security.
A small commotion pulled Antonio’s attention to the back of the nave.
“This is a disgrace!”
Antonio knew that deep voice the way a baby knew the voice of its mother. The man who had been a second father to him walked into the church, wearing a three-piece suit and a coat draped like a cape over his wide shoulders. Don Giuseppe Moretti, Stefano’s older brother and the leader of the Moretti family, was already arguing with the cops.
Two bodyguards flanked Giuseppe. After a moment of heated conversation, the husky old don lifted his arms, allowing them to check him for weapons. He continued to speak under his breath, no doubt uttering words unsuitable for this holy place and solemn occasion.
Antonio sat back in his seat, trying to relax. The gentle touch from Lucia helped calm his nerves, and she reached up to take off his sunglasses.
They locked eyes, sharing the strength that had gotten them through other difficult times.
Giuseppe took a seat with his wife across the aisle. They were childless now, having lost their son and daughter ten years earlier in a fire meant to kill them all, and now he was about to bury his only brother.
Antonio nodded when Giuseppe looked his way. He glimpsed a deep pain in his uncle’s eyes—a moment of weakness that he had never seen in the rock of the family.
The don’s eyes rested on the casket housing his younger brother. Stefano was a respected man, but he had been the muscle of the Moretti family, not the brains. The true titan was Don Giuseppe, who also served on the city council. His background in organized crime was well known throughout the city, and so was his ambition to run for mayor, which made him an even bigger target than Stefano.
Now, with Stefano dead, it was up to Antonio and the other Moretti captains to protect their leader and their family’s honor.
As the final guests were seated, the holy congregation entered through the back doors. The choir started in hymn, and the presiding priest, a short man with a gray beard and thinning hair, started down the central nave with his entourage of altar boys.
He swung a censer on a chain, back and forth, spilling fragrant smoke over the congregants.
Antonio looked over his shoulder to scan the faces. Many people, all of them carefully vetted by the family, had come to show their support and pay their respects tonight.
There were also men from other families, including the allied Sarcone family. Enzo Sarcone, a capo and brilliant entrepreneur, sat near the back of the basilica.
Their eyes met, and Antonio nodded, but Enzo looked away after only the briefest acknowledgment. Antonio turned again to the front of the basilica. Everyone here was nervous about the financial implications of his father’s death.
The priest raised his arms, his robe hanging loosely. “Tonight, we are here to pay respects to Stefano Moretti, a man whom many of you loved deeply,” he said. “His life was cut short by the violence that plagues this city—violence that I pray will end.”
Lucia gripped Antonio’s hand.
The priest continued his appeal for peace and empathy for several minutes. Antonio wanted to tell him that his hollow words meant nothing, that the church had its own problems and, moreover, that the Moretti family was one of the biggest donors in the city.
But why would Enzo leave right now? What emergency could possibly …
Movement caught his eye. Across the basilica, on the other side of the rows where Don Giuseppe sat with dozens of highest- ranked men and their families.
In the glow from hundreds of candles, Antonio spotted three other cops walking in the shadows near the marble columns and statues.
Something was wrong …
Antonio whispered to his wife, “Get ready to move.”
“Do as I say.”
Antonio jerked his chin to Christopher, who had already sensed that something was off. The cops continued in the shadows.
“Let us pray,” said the priest.
As the guests bowed their heads, Antonio turned toward the back of the church, where the officers pulled out their handguns. One man pulled a submachine gun from a duffel bag under a table.
Another officer looped a chain through the handles of the front door and secured it with a bicycle lock.
“Dio mio,” Antonio whispered, realization hitting him like a bullet.
While everyone had their heads bowed, the choir broke into hymn. The heavenly voices stopped with the raucous din of automatic gunfire directed at Don Giuseppe.
His body jerked spastically as the rounds hit him.
Bullets lanced into the pews, and the Moretti associates and soldiers who stood up were cut down. In seconds, ten of the men Antonio had grown up with were slumped dead, their blood pooling on the holy ancient floor.
They were already moving left out of the pew, with Chris- topher in the lead, but when he started toward the front foyer, Antonio grabbed him and pointed toward the altar, where the priest had taken cover.
A cop was waiting for them there.
Not a cop, Antonio realized, pulling back on Lucia’s hand.
He recognized the assassin’s face: a midlevel soldier from the small but aggressive rival Canavaro family. A shock wave of disbe- lief ripped through Antonio.
The underdogs were behind this?
Most families wouldn’t dare do this in a church, of all places. Not on holy ground. The very idea was monstrous. There were rules in La Cosa Nostra, and killing in a church—especially killing women and children—was a cardinal sin.
But the Canavaros apparently didn’t care about burning for eternity if it got them ahead in their mortal lives.
Antonio watched the demon-in-the-flesh raise a gun. “Christopher!” he yelled.
The soldier raised his pistol and fired as the scream echoed through the halls. The bullet meant for Christopher struck Greta in the chest. Christopher turned toward the gunman as his wife crumpled to the ground next to young Vinny, her hand still in his.
Christopher bolted toward the assassin, screaming at the top of his lungs. The man shot him in the arm and then the chest, but the bullets only slowed Christopher down; they didn’t stop him.
He slammed the Canavaro soldier into the altar. Then, grabbing him by the throat, Christopher slammed his head into the wood once, twice, and once more just to be sure.
Antonio pulled Lucia toward the back door as she held a crying Marco close to her chest. She wailed as they walked past Greta’s limp body.
“Vinny, you have to go with your aunt,” Antonio said. The boy hesitated.
“Go!” Antonio yelled.
Lucia grabbed the boy with her free hand, and Antonio rushed over to pick up the revolver that had killed his sister-in-law. He looked for targets as his wife carried Marco toward the back exit, with Vinny in tow.
Christopher ran over and collapsed near his wife’s side.
Antonio pulled the hammer back on the gun and backped- aled as he covered their retreat. All across the open room, the other assassins were hunting down Moretti soldiers, shooting them as they tried to escape with their families. The death and chaos happening all around him made his heart sink, but habit and the killing instinct took control.
He aimed and pulled the trigger, striking a “policeman” in the neck. Lino picked up the fallen man’s gun.
Zachary had taken down another of the cops and beaten his face into mush.
Antonio fired at a Canavaro soldier who took refuge behind a column.
“Christopher!” Antonio yelled. He looked over his shoulder to see his brother carrying Greta. Blood spread outward from the two bullet holes in his suit.
“Go, go!” Lino shouted.
He hopped over a pew, and Zachary followed. Frankie and Carmine joined them with their wives, and the group ran to the back doors, where the choir had already fled.
In the back hallway, they found the assistant priest sprawled on the tile floor, hit in the back by a stray bullet.
While his family slopped through the blood of their loved ones, Antonio trained his gun on the door that had opened behind the altar. Sure enough, one of the assassins emerged into the rear hallway. Before he could bring up his submachine gun, Antonio put a bullet through his eye.
The man dropped, providing a narrow view through the doorway to the massacre in the church. Screams and moans filled the space, some of them cut off by gunshots as the assassins continued to execute his family.
“Antonio!” Lucia yelled.
He hesitated, torn between saving his wife and child and saving his friends and fellow soldiers. The gun had two or three shots at most—heading back into the nave would be suicide.
Antonio swore and ran after his family. He raced down the back passageway and past an alcove with the statue of an angel holding a sword and wearing armor, its features tense and hard with the burdens of a warrior protecting the innocent from evil.
Gunshots echoed behind him, heralding the deaths of more Moretti soldiers. Ahead, at the end of the hallway, he saw Lucia clutching Marco against her breasts, tears streaming down her perfect face. Only a handful of family members had made it out alive.
The realization struck Antonio like a bullet. The reign of the Moretti family had all but ended here in the basilica.
The only future, and only hope for his boy, was away from Naples, in a country where they could raise him without fearing for his life.
Eight years later
South Gate, Los Angeles County
Dominic Salvatore pinched his bleeding nose and walked to the side of the basketball court in Hollydale Regional Park. The game continued as though nothing had happened. Bloody noses, black eyes, and scraped knees were common on these courts, where basketball was war dressed as sport.
As a mixed martial artist, he was accustomed to athletic injuries, and if not for the flow of blood, he would have stayed in the game. But he had to stop the bleeding if he wanted to get back on the court. Taking a seat on the bench between two sweaty players, he eyed the dark-skinned young man who had elbowed him in the face.
Ray Clarke aimed a sharp grin at Dominic. “Just an accident, Dommie boy,” he said.
“You’re a better hooper than you are a liar,” Dom called out. “And you’re really not all that good at shooting hoops, either.”
Ray laughed and went up for a shot. The ball nicked the rim and landed in an opponent’s hand.
Dom didn’t waste any more time arguing. That wasn’t his style. When he got back out there, he would give it right back to Ray, but twice as hard.
“Dom, let’s go!” shouted Andre “Moose” Clarke, Dom’s teammate and best friend and Ray’s younger brother.
“Gimme a few,” Dom said. He grabbed a towel from his gym bag, keeping his thumb and forefinger clamped above his nostrils. “You good?” said a female voice.
Camilla Santiago walked over from the end of the bench and sat down beside him. She was his age, not quite eighteen, and also a senior at Downey High School, where they had met in Spanish class. Now she was practically his Spanish tutor, and a good friend on the courts.
“Fine,” Dom replied.
She brushed her long ponytail over one shoulder. Her dark eyes studied him for a moment, then flitted back to the game. She loved to play with the guys, but some of their friends were dicks and preferred she stay on the bench. It made sense—she was better than some of them, and they had fragile egos.
He toweled sweat off his lean body and welcomed the refreshing breeze that whipped the palm fronds on the other side of the fences. According to scientists, this summer was the hottest in recorded history. Droughts in the American Southwest, floods in the Midwest, and hurricanes on the East Coast had devastated an entire season of crops.
Dom tried not to worry about all that. He was here to have fun—and to win.
Moose went up to dunk the ball. All six feet, two inches and 220 pounds of him rose into the air, slamming into the guy guarding him.
“Nice!” Camilla called out.
“Give it to ’em, Moose!” Dom shouted.
“Get some, baby!” Moose yelled. He flexed his massive biceps, lowered his head, and gave a loud snort. His Afro, sculpted low in the middle and sticking up and out on the sides, did indeed look a lot like moose antlers. The distinctive do and his imposing size had led to a nickname that stuck.
Camilla grumbled about wanting to get back into the game and then stood, cheering her teammates on. Dom grinned. She was a firebrand, almost as competitive as he.
He looked out across the park. Not as many joggers as usual, and only a few families grilling. The hot wind carried the scent of barbecue, but there was something else in the air, so palpable it almost had a smell. Fear—the same kind that crept up on him before he entered the ring to fight an opponent. A messy combination of adrenaline and anxiety that made him feel as if he might puke.
But the complete absence of fear made men weak. That was what his dad always said. Marine Sergeant Ronaldo Salvatore had a lot of great quotes and sayings.
Today, Dom saw fear in the uncertain gazes of parents who had brought their kids to the park for a picnic, trying to enjoy what normally would be a perfect Saturday. He also saw it in the emptiness of the park—all the missing families that normally would be playing on the slides or eating at the picnic tables.
As much as Dom tried to focus on having fun, he couldn’t ignore what was happening in America. Extreme weather events had displaced millions of people and bankrupted the biggest insurance companies and factory farms.
Government bailouts had finally resulted in a default on the $30 trillion in debt the country had accrued, creating a trickle-down effect across the globe.
Currencies crashed, inflation rose, and a perfect storm roared through the global economy.
The federal government had all but shut down, and people were in the streets, rioting over skyrocketing prices of gas, food and water, and utilities.
But it wasn’t just the general population that had taken to the streets. The gangs were also adding to the chaos. Even here, today, a group had gathered outside the new skate park, smoking joints and laughing over the thump of Mexican gangster rap.
It looked like a small clique, probably affiliated with the Norteño Mafia, like most of the Latino gangs. From here, he couldn’t tell what clique, and there were plenty to pick from.
Downey, a dozen miles southeast of LA, was once the mother of modern street gangs, but the police had worked tirelessly with the community for years to rid the city of them; forcing out MS-13, the Sureños, the Crips, the Bloods, and a score of smaller gangs.
Until now. The crashing economy drew violent opportunists back out into the light, and it added to the opioid epidemic already ravaging the city.
“Hey, check that out!” yelled Camilla.
Dom rose to his feet beside her to watch a group of National Guard Humvees speeding down the highway on the other side of the dry concrete ditch that was the Los Angeles River. It didn’t surprise him, not with all the rioting these days.
“Wonder where they’re going,” Moose said.
“Who cares?” Ray said. “Let’s play.”
The trucks made their way through the slow-moving traffic, and Dom thought of his father. He would be back from Afghan- istan soon, his company recalled to help deal with the civil unrest here at home.
It wasn’t just his dad’s unit. Other marines and soldiers were coming home from hot spots around the world, and Dom feared they were returning to fight on American soil. Whispers of a second civil war were everywhere. People blamed the government, and some states, including California, were already talking about seceding from the union.
“Hurry up, Dom,” Moose said. “We’re getting our asses kicked.”
“I’ll go in,” Camilla said.
“I’m coming,” Dom replied.
She grumbled again and sat back down. Dom took the towel away from his nose and looked up at a news helicopter crossing the skyline.
More shouts came as Moose went up for another dunk and slammed it home. Dom tucked the bloody towel away and ran back out to the court.
“About time, baby,” Moose said.
Ray gave him the million-dollar pearly-white grin that was infamous for getting girls to drop their panties. Dom wiped the last bit of blood from his nose with his forearm and dribbled the ball down the court, using his speed and agility to get around Ray. They were about the same size: six feet, and two hundred pounds of mostly muscle. A perfect match on the court when playing fair, but then, Ray wasn’t much for playing fair.
See how well you stack up against me in the ring, Dom thought. Moose held up a hand for a pass, and Dom faked one to him, then maneuvered around Ray, dribbling in for a layup.
He jumped and gently tossed the ball. It hit the backboard and dropped through the net.
“Attaboy,” Moose said. “Back in the game, baby. Twelve–ten.” Ray snorted and reached for the ball as it sailed through the air.
Ray, on the other hand, wasn’t on anybody’s radar except the academic probation committee at UCLA.
The ball shot across the court back to Ray, and Dom bolted to intercept. He missed, and Ray caught it. He launched the ball, but Dom jumped higher, deflecting it and coming back down on top of Ray, knocking him on his ass.
Camilla snickered and nodded at Dom from the bench.
“What the hell!” Ray shouted.
Dom shrugged. “Defense, man.”
He reached down, extending a hand, but Ray slapped it away and pushed himself up. Glaring, he came face to face with Dom.
“Easy, guys,” Moose said.
“I ought to knock your dumb ass out,” Ray said. Dom smiled. “See how that works out for you.”
Moose tried to wedge an arm between them, but Ray pushed up against Dom, knocking him slightly backward.
“Watch it,” Dom said.
“Or what? You think you’re some kinda badass fighter, don’t you?” Ray said, chin raised as if asking for a punch.
“I heard you ain’t shit.”
Ray spat on the ground to the side, but Dom didn’t take the bait. Everyone on the court knew that Dom was 5-and-0 in the Octagon.
Ray pushed Moose back just as a rumbling sounded in the distance. It quickly grew in volume, drowning out even the thumping bass of the gangbangers’ boom box.
Dom looked to the eastern skyline. He knew that noise from his time living on military bases.
“What is that?” Moose asked.
He and Ray joined Dom, forgetting their argument to stare at the squadron of fighter jets that came roaring over the skyline.
“Dude, what are they doing so close to the city?” Ray asked.
“Get down!” Moose yelled.
Dom crouched with everyone else as the jets rocketed over, heading away from the city. The low rumble continued in their wake. Families had already deserted their half-eaten meals and were running to their cars as the sound faded.
“What the hell was that about?” Moose asked. “I don’t know, but it’s not good,” Camilla said.
Dom stood slowly, shaking his head. She was right, and he had a feeling something dire was about to happen. He just hoped men like his father could stop the tide of violence before it was too late for America.
Marine Sergeant Ronaldo Salvatore drowned out the radio chatter and the conversations in the Humvee. Normally, he would have been shooting the shit with the other marines, especially today. The platoon known as the Desert Snakes was freshly back from deployment in the barren, dangerous mountains of Kandahar.
Lance Corporal Callum “Tooth” McCloud, youngest of the four, sat behind the wheel, and Staff Sergeant Zed Marks rode shotgun. Ronaldo sat in the back with Corporal William “Chaplain” Bettis, the eldest of their small team.
Tooth’s deep Irish brogue filled the Humvee, rapping the lyrics to one of the newest American chart toppers. The freckle-faced kid with green eyes didn’t always speak with a brogue, but when he did, he could usually make Ronaldo and everyone else laugh. Today, though, he was just annoying.
“Will you shut your trap, Tooth,” Marks hollered. “Please?”
Corporal Bettis frowned and scratched his salt-and-pepper hair. Then he went back to doing what he usually did in his spare time: reading his well-worn pocket Bible. The “chaplain” had been a seminary scholar until 9/11. He kept to himself, but he always had an ear to lend a brother marine who needed it.
Today, Ronaldo needed an ear.
The convoy sped away from its forward operating base, toward downtown Atlanta. Normally, Ronaldo could ignore other worries when he was heading out on mission, but today his mind was focused on his family back in Los Angeles.
For almost two decades, his wife, Elena, had raised their son Dominic and his sister, Monica, mostly on her own. She was a strong, smart woman, and although they had their share of problems as a couple, he could sleep well at night knowing they were safe with her.
But today he wasn’t sure how safe they were. The situation continued to deteriorate, with riots and violence in every major city. In LA, the gangs were rising to power, and any teenager who couldn’t find a job was ripe for recruitment.
There would be more junkies, more violence, more ruined lives. When he arrived home from Afghanistan six days ago, Elena had begged him not to go to Atlanta. Instead of the joyful home- coming he had imagined, they had gotten into an argument in front of the kids.
Now, all the way across the country, he was kicking himself for not controlling his temper. At least, he could count on his boy to look after them. Dom was smart, brave, and fit, and Ronaldo had entrusted him with a shotgun and pistol to protect his mother and sister.
Maybe I should have gotten them out …
Ronaldo was the only one in the Humvee who had a wife and kids—well, kids he knew about, anyway. Tooth couldn’t keep it in his pants and quite possibly had offspring somewhere.
Bettis was a loner, and Marks, like so many of their brothers, had gone through a terrible divorce. All the men had struggled with relationships, thanks to the horrors of war that they couldn’t help bringing home with them after each deployment.
“They must think they’ll find jobs out that way,” Marks said, looking across the interstate at the stalled line of cars topped with bundles and suitcases. “Reminds me of the refugees leaving Baghdad.”
Ronaldo lifted his helmet long enough to wipe the sweat off his buzz-cut head. While he found it hard to accept that America was in such dire straits, it wasn’t hard to see how things had gotten to this point. The combination of severe weather, economic collapse, and social breakdown had the country coming apart at the seams.
In the back seat, Bettis made the sign of the cross above his wrinkled brow to start a quiet prayer. His features were hard, and Ronaldo suspected that prayers wouldn’t be enough to see them through this time.
“This shit is fucked,” Tooth said, all business now. He had said it a hundred times since they stepped back onto US soil, and in his normal voice.
It occurred to Ronaldo that maybe the rapping hadn’t been so bad, after all.
Tooth changed lanes to avoid a car with smoke coming from its engine. Marks looked over his shoulder, scrutinizing Ronaldo.
“You good?” Marks asked, cocking an eyebrow. “Yeah, bro, I’m good.”
Radio chatter filled the Humvee as they sped toward downtown, weaving in and out of lanes once they pulled off the highway. At stop signs, they paused only to make sure the path was clear.
The rioters were growing more brazen, destroying storefronts, tipping cars, and setting fires.
“This shit is really happening in every major city?” Tooth asked. “Sure sounds like it,” said Marks.
“So we’re going to sit on the sidelines and play babysitter?” Tooth paused to inspect the toothpick he’d been chewing on. “I’d rather be out there—”
Another transmission came over the radio. This one chilled Ronaldo to his core.
“Dirty bomb … San Francisco port … Mass casualty event …”
“Holy shit,” Tooth said. “Turn that up.”
Ronaldo fiddled with the radio, his mind back on his family. They would be safe from the radiation in Los Angeles, but what if more attacks came?
“Buncha’ pussy terrorists, I bet,” Tooth said. “Hittin’ us when we’re weak. Goddamn asshole cowards.”
He continued to mutter profanities as they followed the convoy deeper into the chaos.
“Stay frosty,” Marks said, “and when we get out there, you keep your finger off the bang switch, Lance Corporal. Got it?”
Tooth nodded, but his face was set with grim conviction. “Sergeant, you heard the radio—”
“Yeah, I heard it, and we’re here to help civilians, not make things worse. Do you hear and understand the words coming out of my mouth?”
“Loud and fucking clear, Sergeant.”
Ronaldo and Marks exchanged a glance. First the assassinations, now a dirty bomb …
“Who is doing this?” Ronaldo said, incredulous.
“Somebody that wants a reset,” Bettis replied.
No longer in his praying voice, Bettis said, “These domestic or international terrorists, whoever they are—they haven’t taken credit for the attacks, because their goal isn’t just to spread terror. It’s to take our country down while we’re weak. That’s why the assassins wore masks.”
“That’s what I’m trying to say, man,” Tooth said, cinching his body armor a little more snugly.
“Two years away from retirement, and our country is falling to pieces,” Marks said.
A pair of Black Hawks thumped overhead. As they crossed the skyline, Ronaldo watched the crew chiefs manning the M240 machine guns mounted in the open doors.
“That army?” he asked.
“I can’t tell,” Tooth said, craning for a better look. “Not army,” Bettis said. “That’s the new Corps.”
The marines all studied the Black Hawks. Ronaldo glimpsed the symbol of the new American Military Patriots (AMP): the head of a raven. He wasn’t a big fan of the name, since all marines, sailors, soldiers, and guardsmen were patriots. But some young Harvard grad working in the White House had probably thought it sounded catchy, and the “Always on Watch” slogan was a good pitch to citizens that the government and military had their back in these difficult times.
In response to the civil unrest, the administration had reorganized the National Guard under the AMP banner, and the move had gained traction with surprising speed.
“Vice President Elliot must be behind this,” Marks muttered. “He’s a four-star freaking general, and he’s dangling POTUS like a puppet on strings.”
Tooth chuckled nervously, but Ronaldo didn’t find it funny. “It’s brilliant and ironic,” he said. “The marketing campaign of a government and military looking out for civilians is exactly what people want right now: to feel their government cares.”
“Yeah,” Marks said, “but it’s also another excuse for the Coleman Administration to take troops away from the states so they can’t rebel.”
“And grab all the best equipment while they’re at it,” Bettis said. “I heard the Air Force is being transferred under the AMP banner, which means they’ll have access to all those new F-Thirty-Fives. I thought those were supposed to be for us.”
“They’re welcome to ’em” Marks said. “Fucking boondoggle waste of money, with all the problems they’ve had.”
Tooth muttered, “It’s a disgrace to let anyone else have anything made for the Corps.”
“Guys, just be careful who you say that around,” Bettis said.
Ronaldo acknowledged the older marine with a nod. He was right, of course, and with all the talk of civil war, they needed to watch their expression. The army, navy, and marines had yet to be absorbed by AMP, but Ronaldo’s gut told him it was just a matter of time.
As the convoy reached the edge of downtown, Ronaldo made the sign of the cross and prayed. For his family. For his country. And for all the people who were going to die in the aftermath of the dirty bomb in San Francisco.
“Good to see you putting your faith in God,” Bettis said.
“We all should do that more often.” He looked pointedly at Tooth, who grinned.
“Much respect to you, old man, but I just don’t think God has anything to do with what happens on this planet.”
Ronaldo prepared for yet another theological debate, but this time, he was spared. Instead, another radio transmission distracted the group. Their convoy was being rerouted to Centennial Olympic Park, in the heart of downtown. Traffic on the opposite side of the freeway had come to a stop, and people were standing outside their cars in the midafternoon heat.
Emergency lights from police cars and state troopers flashed along the shoulder as officers did their best to keep the flow moving, but several stalled cars bottlenecked the mass exodus.
Ronaldo shifted his rifle against his shoulder. The thought of actually using it crossed his mind for the first time since he arrived back stateside. Could he do it? Could he really fire at Americans?
If they’re terrorists, hell yes.
What about rioters, though? Average people driven to do crazy shit out of desperation.
He shook away the thoughts as the convoy turned down a street that paralleled a railroad. Hundreds of people were marching across a bridge over the tracks.
Tooth took a left at the next turnoff, following the convoy’s path. Storefronts on the intersecting streets were already shattered, and the hull of a burned-out car smoldered where a city truck with a snow blade had pushed it off to the side.
On a side street, a line of cops in riot gear held their ground against a mob of civilians wearing masks and carrying backpacks. They were chanting something he couldn’t make out.
FEMA; the Red Cross; and local, state, and federal agencies had sent people to a massive lot on the west side of the railroad tracks.
The local greeting wasn’t the one Ronaldo had expected. He got out to the angry shouts and screams of several thousand disgruntled civilians on the other side of the fences. Most of them jobless and hungry—of course they were mad.
“All right, listen up!” shouted Lieutenant Tom Castle. The platoon leader’s commanding voice and presence even turned the heads of several police officers.
Marks, Ronaldo, Bettis, and Tooth stood side by side, rifles cradled as the other marines in the platoon gathered around.
“We got supplies coming in from the rail,” Castle said.
“Our job is to protect those supplies and make sure they get to the people that need them. We’re not here to poke the hornets’ nest, so stay frosty.”
Ronaldo’s mind turned to his family. If the government didn’t turn things around, his children’s future would be postapocalyptic, like the books he had read during the long, lonely nights of his deployments.
“No one shoots unless I give the order,” Castle said. “I don’t care if you’re getting punched in your nut sack. Everyone got that?”
“Hoo-ah!” the marines all yelled.
Castle went to work, splitting the men into teams. The Desert Snakes followed Marks toward a police officer who was busy barking orders at a group of cops who looked dog tired.
It was like being transported back to Baghdad, 2003.
The Black Hawks that had flown over the interstate earlier crossed the skyline again. Two more birds, both news choppers, hovered above the city.
“They want us up on that rooftop,” Marks said, glancing at a low-rise office building. He directed them across the staging area, stopping for a flatbed trailer. The truck crossed in front of them and rumbled onward.
At the top of the stairwell, the marines accessed the roof through an unlocked service door. Marks flashed hand signals, and the team split up, with Marks and Ronaldo moving to a ledge to set up position. Tooth and Bettis took the opposite corner, giving them an overview of several city blocks, including the tide of civilian protesters and rioters.
“Jesus Christ on a pogo stick,” Tooth muttered.
“Watch it, kid,” Bettis said, shooting him an angry glare. “Sorry. How about—”
“How about you shut your mug and focus,” Marks called over.
To the east, a train hissed and squealed to a stop on the tracks, and crews lined up to start unloading the supplies from FEMA warehouses. Ronaldo doubted that the rations were going to calm these people down.
He pushed his scope up and zoomed in on the riot police they had passed on the way in. They were being pushed back into an intersection, closer to the entrance of the marshaling area.
“We got trouble,” he said. Marks lifted a pair of binoculars.
Teargas canisters sailed away into the mass of rioters, swirling and billowing. But this just seemed to further enrage the mob. Several people wearing bandannas and masks charged through the line, throwing rocks and bricks.
The entire area was a tinderbox, and the rioters were doing their best to ignite it.
“Shit, this is jacked,” Tooth said. He raised his rifle, and Bettis put his hand on the barrel.
“Take it easy,” he said.
One of the officers in riot gear crumpled in the street, and his comrades pulled him to safety.
“Everyone, keep calm,” Marks said.
A gunshot came from the south, and Ronaldo turned to zoom in on the bridge, where people were using ropes to climb down.
“We got a security breach,” he said.
More gunfire came from the west, and three more riot police went down. Nonlethal deterrence had failed. The rioters were marching full steam ahead toward the gates. The tinder was alight.
Over the noise came the whoosh of a news chopper, coming in for a better view of the area. The two Black Hawks crossed over to intercept and chase it away.
The cops in riot gear retreated with their injured toward the armored vehicles. Ronaldo was impressed by their weapons discipline, especially after some of their own had been severely hurt. If they could maintain that kind of restraint, then it was just possible they could stop this from escalating.
A police loudspeaker sounded, telling the rioters to get back and that aid was on the way. This seemed to mollify some of the crowd, who began to disperse, but hundreds continued toward the staging area.
The Black Hawks circled the news chopper, but the civilian pilot wasn’t following orders. The bird continued to hover over the crowds, recording the entire thing.
A transmission from Castle crackled over the comms. “If those crowds hit the gates, we have permission to fire at hostiles to keep them back.”
He paused, as if questioning his orders, but then added, “Everyone, pick your targets cleanly if it comes to it.”
Ronaldo looked over at Marks, who couldn’t hide the shock on his normally stoic face.
“We really doing this, bro?” Ronaldo asked. “God have mercy on our souls,” Bettis said.
Before anyone could question the orders, another round of gunfire cracked in the distance.
“Oh, shit!” Tooth yelled, pointing at the news chopper. Ronaldo watched in horror as it began to spin after taking several rounds.
The pilot fought to control the descent, but the tail rotor was dead, and the bird swirled and came crashing down at the west side of the staging area, exploding on impact. Marines, cops, and civilians dived for cover, but several were enveloped in the fireball. The deafening blast forced Ronaldo down. As he ducked, automatic gunfire fire rang out. He glanced to the sky, where one of the Black Hawk crew chiefs had opened up with the M240. He fired right into the crowd, mowing down men and women, rioters and peaceful demonstrators.
“Tell that dumb motherfucker to hold his fire!” Marks yelled, waving both hands.
The AMP crew chief continued to rain hell down on the civilians, casually taking lives as if these weren’t real human beings. Screams of horror sounded from inside and outside the staging area, where the injured lay on the concrete, bleeding and crawling.
“Stop that gunner!” Marks yelled again.
The crew chief kept right on shooting at the crowd, cutting down more civilians as they fanned away from the gates.
Ronaldo knew there was only way to stop the bloodshed. He raised his rifle and put the AMP gunner in his crosshairs.
God forgive me, he thought as he squeezed the trigger.
Although written well before the covid-19 events that have isolated all of us in our homes, depleted our economy, and burdened our future generations with tremendous debt, SONS OF WAR presents us with a world easily imagined springing forth from our own.
Smith formerly worked in Emergency Management and specialized in disaster planning and mitigation, and his knowledge on the topic and attention to detail shine through in his writing. Despite the authenticity of those aspects of his novel, the story remains focused on his characters, their reactions to the world into which he’s thrust them, and working through their own moral quandaries after the lives they knew are lost forever.
This novel’s focus on family and relationships separates its story and pacing from much of the thriller genre and allows the reader to consider their own potential conduct while witnessing the characters’ choices and actions. SONS OF WAR is a timely read well worth your time.
by by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
14 April 2020
by by Nicholas Sansbury Smith
15 September 2020
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