BY: JJ BURKE
A Hidden Past…
Six years as a covert operative had left Jon Morton with a lot of memories—most of them bad, all of them bloody. He returned to civilian life, seeking refuge in commercial fishing. This simple, somewhat solitary, life allowed him to avoid the dark side of humanity. Hopefully the ocean would, in time, wash away his mind-searing memories. He had learned to live with them, and the occasional flashback, accepting the fact that this was just how it was going to be—the price he had to pay. That was, until one ordinary day that was to become the first in a series of unusual events, which spawned a reawakening of one deadly memory, and the beginning of a very real nightmare.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Lethal Fisheman by JJ Burke, Jon Morton is a retired special forces vet, who wants nothing more than to live the quiet life of a fisherman. He’s seen enough of death and violence when he was in the military. Now he just wants peace. But fate has other plans, beginning when Jon’s fishing boat finds a body floating in the ocean. This discovery unleashes a chain of events that lead to a nightmare of bloody memories he thought were in his past. But it has been a while since he last took part in a military operation and his skills have grown rusty. Is he up for this? And does he have a choice?
The story is well written, the characters fascinating, and the action fast paced. I loved the flashbacks and the glimpses of covert operations. Extremely compelling. I couldn’t put it down.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Lethal Fisherman by JJ Burke is the story of a warrior with PTSD, who ops for the “quiet life,” in hopes that his memories will fade and his flashbacks qne nightmares will cease. Our hero, Jon Morton, spent six years in special forces and has had enough of blood and death. Returning home to North Carolina after retiring from the military, he works as a commercial fisherman with a crew of three and is able to find refuge in the simple, hard-working life. That is, until his life is no longer quiet and simple. Strange things begin to happen that lead Jon to suspect that his past has caught up with him, and someone on the wrong end of one of his covert ops when he was in the marines now wants revenge. But who and why? If Jon is going to defend himself and his crew, he needs to answer these questions—and fast.
The Lethal Fisherman is a fast-paced thriller, filled with plenty of hard-hitting action. If you like books that keep you guessing while glued to the edge of your seat, this one’s for you.
Two men lay completely concealed, maintaining total silence, among the crevasses and boulders of a mountainside in Afghanistan, near the Pakistani border. They had climbed up the back side of the mountain to their secure position under cover of night. These men weren’t friends, just acquaintances of the moment–neither fully trusting the other. One was an American, the other Albanian.
Both were both dressed in white Alpine winter camouflage suits and everything they carried was also carefully concealed in white. It had been snowing lightly and sporadically for the last two hours, adding little to the already existing, heavy accumulation. The Albanian whispered two words. “Snow good.”
The American simply nodded. They both knew the snow acted as a muffler, deadening any slight sounds they might make.
Jon Morton, a covert operative, was there as a spotter for the Albanian, Tovar Kostarovich. Kostarovich was arguably the world’s best known extreme distance sniper. Eleven hundred yards away was a tiny village, just a group of huts clustered together, alongside a rough dirt road. Intel indicated the village to be this day’s destination for one of the world’s most notorious white slave traffickers, dealing only in boys and girls under the age of sixteen. This human vulture, Anton Breshlav, was their target.
Jon had been continuously scanning the single road that serviced the town with ultra-high power optics. He tapped Tovar’s arm and whispered, “Car coming.”
Tovar snapped the protective lens covers off the telescopic sight mounted on his fifty caliber, Russian-made sniper rifle.
Tovar had become a free agent–a rogue–for sale to anyone willing to pay his price. The price for this hit was fifty thousand US dollars. In his light backpack was a bundle of cash, twenty-five thousand dollars. The arrangement was simple. Twenty-five up front, the other twenty-five when the hit was confirmed. But there was to be no second payment after this target was hit. Intelligence had confirmed that Tovar was the shooter who had terminated a high-ranking British MI-6 agent. Tovar was playing both sides and now had to be eliminated.
The air was amazingly still, snowflakes fell straight down, perfect for the shot. Jon confirmed the target, now out of the car. “Black fur hat. The only one.”
Jon kept his optics trained on the target. He heard the hiss as the silenced weapon fired and, in just under two seconds watched the target’s head explode in a burst of red droplets. That son-of-a-bitch sure can shoot.
Both men hugged the frozen ground, crawling quickly back over the ridge until well out of sight of the village. Tovar held out his left hand, sniper rifle in his right, a sardonic smile on his lips. The meaning was dangerously evident. At the same time, he kept a wary eye on Jon’s side-arm and right hand. Jon reached back, pulling off his light backpack. He zipped it open and reached in. “Your completion payment.”
When his hand came out, it was not with money, but a silenced, semi-automatic, Beretta M9. The first shot hit Tovar in the forehead and the second, an instant later as Tovar’s head snapped back, in his mouth. A scattered spray pattern of crimson now profaned the new snow. Jon quickly retrieved the initial payment from Tovar’s pack. He then proceeded to pour a small vial of powerful acid, into the breach of the sniper rifle. In minutes, it would be useless. Jon left the scene with both missions accomplished. He carried but one addition–the twenty-five thousand dollar deposit for the hit. The snowfall was getting heavier as he started down the back side of the mountain toward his extraction point–
Jon opened his eyes and sat up abruptly. Damn! Didn’t need that. Rehashing a seven-year-old op. Got to work on getting away from that habit. He glanced at the clock on his night table. Three-forty-one. Why do I even bother? He reached out to shut off the alarm clock, pre-set for three-fifty.
The start of each day was usually a carbon-copy of the one before. Not that it was planned that way, just that it had become a smooth and comfortable procedure. Toilet, wash, shave, brush teeth, comb hair, and then dress. He would, occasionally, stop in the kitchen for a glass of orange juice then out the door for his solitary walk to the docks. His routine was purposely simple and repetitive–a direct opposite from his former, covert world.
“God, it’s dark!” That softly whispered statement was the first conscious thought in today’s solitary and daily journey. This morning was one of those rare mornings when the moon, and the last scattering of morning stars, had fled the night sky. However, the first vestiges of dawn were late in brightening the eastern horizon. It was often, at times such as these, that his mind would mercilessly dredge up and replay the multiple scenes of cruel death, torture, and violent destruction that had, at one time, been an integral part of his existence. The aftermath of these flashbacks were at times so vivid, he could actually see the carnage, smell the stench of death. One of these episodes would usually leave him drained, both physically and emotionally. His early recognition of this mental stress had been the primary cause for his retirement from the service. On several occasions, he had considered that these unwanted mental regressions into his past could be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Jon would not, however, allow himself the truth of a clinical diagnosis. For this reason, he carried a hidden inner resentment toward special ops–not for what he had done, but for what it had done to him. He took another deep breath, inhaling the mildly pungent salt air. The air, close to the sea, was laden with the ocean’s overtones of seaweed and fish. Each breath allowed the cathartic value of the ocean air to envelope his mind and body, driving the demons of his past back into his subconscious. I hope that, in time, they’ll stay buried forever.
He had been a superbly trained operative, with a unique mindset that had allowed him to run covert operations throughout the world, exterminating the scum of humanity, whether criminal or political then return home as if it had been just another day at the office. His superiors had called him “one of the best”. Now all he wanted to do was put that life far behind, buried in the recesses of his mind, to stay there forgotten and undisturbed.
Jon was neared the water’s edge. He could now hear the persistent, yet still faint, sound of the gentle swells, sweeping the shore as if attempting to brush away unseen specks of dirt. There was a light contact on the back of his left hand. Reflexively, he swiped it across his pants leg. Damned mosquitoes.
Within minutes, the coal black sky began to gray then brighten and undergo a metamorphosis into multiple shades of blue. In the previously indefinable distance, a hairline crack in the fading black void appeared. At first just a faint line, with subtle hues of white and pink, dividing the ocean from the sky and beginning to define the existence of objects, living and inert. The line slowly expanded and began to glow with an orange hue and then as if by magic, the top edge of the huge, fire red sun appeared over the horizon. It was as if the foreboding, dark, ocean had suddenly given birth to this radiant symbol of life and a new day. The sun continued on its upward path, burning off the predawn, gossamer haze as it rose. The surface of the ocean, once a black, undulating and unknown expanse, took on a new life, painted with shades of blue and turquoise with bright, shimmering, hues of reflected red and gold sunlight.
Jon left the narrow path and made his way over the wet, moss-covered rocks that were littered with a vast assortment of seashells. These were the weather-bleached external skeletons of thousands of shellfish that had, as all life, served their brief purpose and passed into oblivion, leaving only a hint of their former existence. His high rubber boots, designed to be both warm and waterproof, were scarred from long use on such surfaces, cut by the razor edges of the numerous shells and gouged by both the unforgiving surfaces of the rocks as well as the spiny fins of his daily catch. By now the sea birds had begun to appear, filling the air with their raucous cries, once again to start their daily, and endless quest for food.
The rocks under his feet gave way to pebbles and then just sand. He turned toward the small cove, which sheltered the pier where his boat was docked. There was definitely a much easier way to the pier–down the main road and then onto the paved path to the harbor, but the path he chose to travel each day gave Jon a feeling of inner peace and a closer, more welcome relationship with his present life. The white and green excrement from one of the circling gulls hit the sand nearby and splattered onto his right boot.
“Shit!” Then he laughed aloud, realizing that his utterance was both a statement of annoyance as well as a fact.
The upper edge of the sun had just appeared above the horizon when the pier came into sight. Three other commercial fishing boats were tied up at slips near his. The closest, the Albatross, was having a new winch installed. The Molly-B would not leave port until that evening, and the Rip-Tide, which was tied up next to his boat the Adventure, should have sailed by now, but showed no signs of activity. The name for his boat was inspired by a school teacher he had, many years ago. Mr. Desmond, a brilliant but very ordinary-looking teacher of English, had poetically said, “Life is one continuous adventure, and each coming day represents a new chapter in that adventure.”
It didn’t require much thought for Jon to realize that Adventure seemed appropriate as the name for his boat, when one considered that a life dependent upon the sea was never without some adventure.
As he neared the pier, a familiar, deep voice called to him, “Hey, Jon! Coffee? Yes?”
Stavros was standing in front of his diner smoking his well-worn, briar pipe, taking a short break in his daily preparation for the morning breakfast rush. The Greek owner of the local diner was outfitted in his standard uniform–white cotton slacks, white T-shirt, and apron, topped off with a strip of white terry cloth tied loosely around his neck as a sweat band. He was a barrel-chested man; two inches shy of six-feet in height; sporting thick, curly black hair tinged with just a trace of gray. An aquiline nose and large, heavily muscled, arms made him look more like a wrestler or an ironworker than a man who made his living in a hot, cramped kitchen.
“Sure, I’d love some and, while you’re at it, fill my thermos. Thanks.” Jon had developed the habit of leaving his thermos with Stavros at the end of each day. He also left a cooler with Stavros and each day the Greek would put in a couple of sandwiches, a portion of potato salad, and a piece or two of baklava.
This is definitely a lot easier than trying to figure out what I would make for lunch every day. At the end of each week he would stop in and pay, which worked perfectly for both of them. The morning greeting was really unnecessary, but it had become an integral part of their routine, reassuring them that their world and their friendship had not changed.
Stavros ambled casually down from the diner, the aromatic smell of his pipe tobacco preceding him, while Jon continued toward the pier. Their paths converged and Jon accepted the large Styrofoam cup of hot, black coffee from his friend. “Thanks, Stavros.”
Lunch and a full thermos, he knew, would appear at dockside just before he sailed. Does Stavros have a sixth sense? It seems that always, without fail, my cooler arrives just as I give the order to untie the stern line. I’ve never once had to wait. Experience with Stavros’s coffee had, however, left its mark. His coffee is hot as fire and always has to be allowed plenty of time to cool down or it’ll fry my tonsils. Jon reminded himself of this fact almost daily. He had forgotten twice. The searing pain of that fiery hot beverage, however, could not be quickly forgotten.
Jon stepped onto the weathered and worn wooden pier, his long, purposeful stride rapidly reducing the distance to his boat. His boots created a hollow, resonant sound on the wood planking as he walked toward slip number thirteen, where the Adventure was moored. I can’t understand people’s superstitions about supposedly unlucky number thirteen. As a matter of fact, on the few occasions that I’ve given it any thought, I would almost consider it to be the opposite, actually believing that it was lucky. His military career, as a covert operations officer, had consisted of high stress, life-and-death situations on many continents, and, for a moment, he reconsidered that not-too-distant past. I’ve seen men die while depending on a superstition to pull them through, and I’ve managed to survive, almost unscathed, without invoking any superstitions or good luck charms. Nope, luck is what you make of a situation, not what’s in your mind or pocket.
To the casual observer, Jon was just another fisherman headed for his daily fight with nature. To a trained eye, there was so much more–six foot-two, with broad shoulders, narrow waist and hips, light brown hair, and piercing blue eyes. His fluid movements were like those of a superbly trained athlete or perhaps a skilled gymnast. There was an aura of self-confidence about him–he was self-assured but unassuming. Not your average fisherman–if one knew what to look for.
There was a new boat at the pier this morning, next to his. It was one that would not normally be berthed at the commercial dock, and one that Jon had never seen before. It was a sixty-foot Hatteras. She’s a beauty. Looks new. From what I can see of the electronics and outfitting, she’s also quite expensive. His final assessment was quite basic. A sweet yacht like this one must belong to some millionaire businessman. Yeah, must be. Wonder what it’s doing here?
Carlos was already on board, readying the gear for the day. “Buenos dias, jefe!” he called, with a big smile.
Carlos always greets me the same way. He insists on calling me jefe, which is a constant source of embarrassment. I wish he’d quit it. Colombian by birth, Carlos was five-feet eight inches in height, stocky in build with black hair, brown eyes and blemish free skin the color of cocoa powder–all indicative of his Indian ancestry. What was not visually evident was the fact that he, too, had been a covert operative.
I appreciate our close relationship and friendship, but I sure don’t consider myself to be the boss. Yes, I’m in charge and it’s my boat, but Carlos and my crew all work as if we’re equal partners, and I sure couldn’t do this without them. “Buenos dias, Carlos,” he replied. He had a rusty but working knowledge of basic Spanish, although, other than their morning greeting, all conversations were in English.
As Jon stepped on board, a booming voice called out to him. “Ve er right behind you. Looks like a godt day, ya?”
His small crew was rounded out by two, Swedish, brothers, Bjorn and Sven. Both had thick, lilting accents. They were a typical picture of the classic Swedish profile–both with blond hair and blue eyes. They were taller than Jon by a couple of inches and strong as a team of oxen. Consideration, early on, had been given to hiring one more man to lighten the workload. That idea was scrapped when all three, Carlos and the two brothers, assured him that a fourth person was a waste of money. Besides as Bjorn had put it, “Von more vill cut our portion av der profit.”
That was three years ago and Jon never had a day that any of them came up short when there was work to be done or a tough situation handled. They all worked together like a well-oiled machine and, when the opportunity arose, joked lightly with each other, but their amusement never involved any practical jokes when on board. These men were acutely aware of how easy it was to get seriously injured on a commercial fishing vessel and practical jokes could only compound the problem.
Jon presented the day’s fishing goal for the crew. “The tuna run has begun, so I hope that you’re all ready for a good workout.”
Sven grinned. “Ve er alvays ready to make money.”
They fished for tuna with flexible, but strong, fiberglass poles that had a heavy line secured to the end. There were no ferrules or reel and, at the end of the line, there was a jig, consisting of a large barbless hook disguised with a covering of white nylon strands, simulating a small fish. Upon locating a school of tuna feeding on small fish near the surface, they would cast out their short lines, dropping the feather jigs in among the feeding fish. The tuna, in their feeding frenzy, would consider the jig as just another baitfish. The moment a fish hit, the hook would be set and, in the same motion, the fisherman would heave the pole upward, the flex in the pole adding momentum to the lift. The fish would fly up, land on the deck and the barbless hook would fall free of the fish’s mouth–almost always at the same instant. It was an old method used by many fishermen, time-proven and simple, yet efficient. Jon preferred this method because it was environmentally sound. You caught only tuna, no protected or endangered species. All you needed were a strong back and arms.
Jon went directly to the wheelhouse for his pre-sailing check of the instruments and a last check on the current weather conditions. A couple of dicey experiences early in his fishing career had stamped an indelible mental lesson. When it comes to the sea, you can’t be too careful. At the same time, he took his first cautious sip of the strong black coffee that Stavros had provided. Still too damn hot. That was another thing he had learned. Stavros serves coffee that’s hot enough to hard-boil an egg–you wait or you suffer.
The crew began to call out to him. First, Carlos. “All set below.”
Then Bjorn announced loudly, “Ve er fine on deck.”
Sven advised that the fuel tanks had been topped off and now all that awaited was Jon’s final okay. A few minutes passed until he was satisfied with all of the instrument operations. After a last check of the ocean charts and the forecast, he opened the aft door and raised his voice to ensure they all heard. “Everything points to a smooth sail. It’s now up to the tuna, let’s cast off.”
The twin diesel engines roared to life in response to the starters. As soon as they had evened out and the RPM was constant, Sven, at Jon’s signal, untied the bow line and, as if by magic, there was Stavros.
“Hey.” His deep voice carried over the sound of the diesels. “You leave too soon you eat bait for lunch.” Stavros, still smiling about his jocular comment, handed the cooler and thermos to Bjorn. The stern line was released.
The sun continued its upward climb in the sky, but was still hanging low enough in the eastern sky to present a bright, fiery orange target as the Adventure aimed for the horizon. They headed for the Gulf Stream, sixty miles offshore, more or less, dependent on weather and time of year. As the Adventure pulled out into the harbor channel and turned toward the open sea, Jon took a longer look at the Hatteras, moored in the adjacent slip. He appreciated the smooth lines and attention to detail, noticing the clean, fiberglass hull, the bright stainless steel fittings, and the high-performance radar system, coupled with long-range ship-to-shore radio and even a Sonar system. The television satellite dish did not go unnoticed. The dinghy or lifeboat was a Zodiac, the type used by the navy SEALS. The Zodiac was outfitted with a seventy-five horsepower Honda outboard motor. Must be nice to have that kind of money. Great idea–a Zodiac for a dinghy. They’re almost unsinkable. Maybe someday, but for now it’s too vivid a memory.
The Adventure plowed along, maintaining harbor speed, until they passed the “No Wake“ sign at the entrance to the harbor. Once they cleared the harbor, Jon pressed the twin throttle levers forward, bringing them up to a cruising speed of fifteen knots per hour.
Carlos joined him in the wheelhouse, and they settled down for the three-and-one-half-hour run to the Gulf Stream.
“Boy, Carlos, that Hatteras sure was a beauty and a high priced one, at that.”
Carlos just gave a slight nod of agreement.
Jon paused then changed the subject. “Say, how’s that beautiful wife of yours doing? Has she gotten over the flu?”
“She’s better now and if you’d come over for dinner once in a while, you’d know that.”
Carlos invited Jon to dinner regularly and although Rosita was an excellent cook, Jon often refused, preferring his time alone. I can’t tell him, but seeing their happiness makes me miss Tina. Jon and Tina had been engaged to be married, and he couldn’t believe that a woman could give him such a feeling of happiness, love, and peace. That was until, just two weeks before their planned wedding. A crazed worker who had been fired from the plant, in which Tina was a systems analyst, walked into the management office with an automatic assault rifle and began firing at anyone in sight. Two bullets ended Jon’s joy–one had hit her in the temple and the other entered her neck. The medical examiner’s report said that death had been instantaneous and she never suffered. The suffering was left to Jon, bringing him to gut-wrenching sobbing for many weeks afterward. The loss, for Jon, had been especially devastating. As an orphan, he had been alone and without family for his entire life. With Tina, he had finally found love and the thrill of a true companion, only to have it ripped away in a few seconds of madness. Two other workers died, and four more were wounded that day before the gunman turned the weapon on himself. His suicide deprived everyone involved of the satisfaction of justice. The burning question of “Why?” would remain, forever unanswered. Thankfully, Carlos never brings Tina up.
“Jon, I’m going back on deck. Think I’ll just take it easy ‘‘til the action starts.” With that, Carlos left.
The ocean’s like a lake today and the radar shows almost no traffic. Think I’ll engage the autopilot for a while and just enjoy my coffee.
The men settled back for the trip to the fishing grounds. Jon’s thoughts were drawn to the luxurious Hatteras, specifically its Zodiac dinghy. That Zodiac’s very distinctive image, once a real part of his former life, triggered one particular memory that he wanted, so desperately, to stay buried. His mind, without warning, flashed back to a time when he was the leader of an elite special-operations team, one of his last forays into the silent world of intrigue and sudden death. His buried past became, in an instant, his very real present…
© 2017 by JJ Burke