Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Countdown: Cannon Steel by John P. Szeker

My Thoughts:

CIA intrigue, terrorists, a comet! What's not to love? With the current events of near-Earth asteroids and terrorism, John Szeker's book rings only too true. His life experience with missile defense adds believable scenarios as well as exciting characterization. I adore the accents of various people, especially the Irish brogue. John doesn't hold back with the Christian spiritual warfare either. I love the 'visions' that one of the main characters keeps having. Wonderful job answering some scary 'what if' questions. Great read!

John P. Szeker

and the book:

FIRST Wild Card Press (March 1, 2016)


John Szeker holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics from Santa Clara University and a B.S. from Manhattan College. He retired after a thirty-five year engineering career with Lockheed Martin Missiles & Space Company, and continues as an internationally recognized expert in missile guidance and simulation. His missile system development, battle management, and war gaming experience provides accurate technical realism to his writing. He and his wife of fifty-five years have four daughters, nine grandchildren, and two great grandchildren.

Visit the author's website.


The U.S. is under siege. 
Middle Eastern terrorists.
 Russian renegades. 
A comet. 

A lone man recognizes the danger signs as the president creates Cannon Steel, a task force to deal with these imminent threats.

Paperback: 438 pages
Publisher: FIRST Wild Card Press; Revised edition (March 1, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0692588418
ISBN-13: 978-0692588413


     Disaster. Huge, heavy hailstones fell relentlessly from the sky. As the deadly ice missiles hit the city, they created large craters into which cars and buildings collapsed. Fire engulfed everything that came in its way. Screaming people ran panic-stricken in all directions. In the midst of the horrific destruction, an old man prayed. He was all in white—white beard, thick, white eyebrows, and a pure-white robe. He looked sad, yet resigned.


     Stan Smith opened his eyes to the familiar sight of his study walls. He had been seeing these disturbing images for weeks, which first occurred as dreams during the night but now had begun to intrude into his daytime life.
He looked at his watch. “Oh, no,” he muttered, remembering that his wife, Rachel, had invited guests for dinner. He dried his sweat-soaked hair, quickly cleared the mess from his desk, and then locked the door. Luckily, his home was only a few miles down the road, a ten-minute drive away.


     The phone rang, startling Pete Strong out of his self-pity. Don’t tell me—another editor calling, I’ll bet. He turned off his laptop and swiped the phone off its cradle.
     “Hello, Pete?” a deep, confident voice inquired.
     “Yes. Who is this?” Pete said, rolling his aching neck from side to side while stroking his unshaven chin. It couldn’t be. Not after all this time.
     “Mark. Come on, good buddy, you couldn’t have forgotten that easily.”
     Pete turned and looked at a picture midway up his wall. “Mark? Mark McKendrick?” He grinned as he stared at the photo of Mark and him, taken outside CIA headquarters in Washington. They had been young, virile thrill-seekers back then, handsome and debonair—one, a crew-cut blond, and the other, dark and wavy-haired—a very long time ago. He wondered how his old friend had fared over the years. “My gosh, I thought you’d lost my phone number. Where are you calling from?” Pete asked.
     “Washington right now. Say, I’m going to be in the San Francisco Bay area for a few days. Can we get together for lunch?”
     “Sounds great to me, Mark. How about Ming’s Chinese in Palo Alto? You do remember how to get there, don’t you?” Pete said, perking up at the chance to get together with his old buddy.
     “You kidding? I haven’t lost my memory—just some hair. How does tomorrow sound? I fly in at 0730 for an early meeting, but the rest of my afternoon’s free.”
     “Roger that. Man, I can’t wait to catch up on old times. See you at noon.”       As he stood to hang up the phone, his eyes caught the movement in the mirror. He turned and stared at himself. How much had he changed over the years? He glanced toward his wedding portrait and gently traced the outline of his estranged wife’s face. All it did was rekindle the guilt about his failed marriage.


     “Pete, over here!” Mark waved at him from what used to be their favorite table. If it weren’t for that greeting, Pete doubted that he’d have recognized his former comrade-in-arms. From a slim Harrison Ford look-alike who’d had no problem attracting women, Mark now looked noticeably older and considerably wider.
     “Mark, you old son of a gun, good to see you.” Pete squeezed Mark’s hand and pounded his back.
     “Sit down, buddy.” Mark gave his friend the once-over as he sat. “You look great. I’m impressed.  Did you shave just for me?” he asked.
Pete’s hand went to his smooth face. Not wanting to give him the upper hand, he ignored the question. “You still with the CIA—or are you looking for a job?”
     “I’ll have you know that I am now special advisor to the Director of the CIA…” Mark took another sip of tea as if to let that one sink in before adding, “John Stanton.”
     Stanton had been their boss several years back, when they had both been agents.
     “John? Jeez, they put him in charge?” He laughed.
     “Well, if he could control you, he can easily deal with President Nelson.” Mark joined Pete’s laughter, interrupted only by the approach of the waiter.
After ordering, Mark asked, “What’s your story, Pete? Where have you been hiding yourself?”
     “I haven’t been hiding. But there are other things in life besides always dashing into danger.” Pete’s mood turned uncharacteristically solemn, and he looked down at his napkin.
     “Whoa, partner. No offense.” Mark held up his hands in surrender.
     With perfect timing, the waiter arrived with their food. Pete realized his emotions had gotten the better of him. “Oh, brother. Mark, I’m sorry. I know you didn’t mean anything. It’s just…I…I don’t know.”
     “That’s okay, bud. What’s wrong? Is Marilyn all right?”
     Pete shook his head. “We’re getting a divorce. I thought I knew what she wanted. The Agency was so all-consuming that I thought if I quit, our marriage would fall back into place. But I immersed myself in the new job instead and didn’t spend the time to repair the old damage. Just caused a whole new set of the same old problems.”
     “I’m sorry, Pete. I thought that new job would have given you more time for the family.”
     “Well, so did I, Mark, but the aerospace industry turned out to be just as demanding.” Pete speared a pot sticker.
     “How did you end up in aerospace anyway? That’s some jump from secret agent to writing government proposals.”
Putting down his chopsticks, Pete replied, “Well, remember hearing about the surveillance events prior to Desert Storm?”
     “Oh, yeah. That was the last time we were here at Ming’s. Stanton told us about the time that he had been assigned to get the specs on the enemy’s weaknesses in their underground bunker system.” Mark’s eyes lit up in remembrance. “They needed a large, accurate weapon that would penetrate to pay dirt.”
     “Marlock Aerospace put that system together in less than a month’s time. That’s what made me want to work for them, Mark,” responded Pete, finishing his green tea. “Want dessert, by the way?”
     “No, thanks, Pete,” Mark patted his already oversized waistline.
     For a brief second, Pete was reminded of the old days, when he and Mark used to fly at a moment’s notice to unknown parts of the Middle East with assumed names and blank airline tickets. Only their boss knew where they were going or why. He still missed those times. He had never been able to find another partner like Mark. They never had to explain things twice to each another. Kindred spirits like that were hard to find.
    Their meal finished, they sat and stared at each another in awkward silence. Pete realized this meeting was more than just a let’s-reminisce-about-old-times dinner.
    Mark broke the silence. “Pete, I know you don’t work for the CIA anymore, but I need your opinion...it’s got to stay confidential, though.”
     Pete gave a tentative nod.
    Mark lowered his voice. “We can’t talk here. Can you come to my hotel room later tonight?”
    “Sure. Just name the time.”
    “Room 104. Holiday Plaza. Eighteen-thirty. Okay?”
    “I’ll be there.”

   Mark sat reviewing his notes, when he heard a knock on his hotel room door. After checking through the peephole that it was indeed Pete, he opened the door and gestured him in.
   “Always were right on time, Pete,” he said. “Pick a seat. Would you like a drink?”
  “Sure. Got a beer?” Pete spread his lanky frame on one of the uncomfortable motel room chairs. A pop-hiss of escaping air was his answer, and Mark handed him the open can before seating himself in an equally uncomfortable chair.
     “Pete, what I’ve got to tell you is top secret. I can’t go into much detail tonight, and unless you agree to be briefed on the subject, I can’t even give you the gist of it,” Pete’s mouth was still open when Mark continued, “your clearance level is Top Secret, right?”
     “Of course.”
    “You’re also deeply involved in national missile defense—weapon systems engineering, isn’t it?” he asked, looking at his notes. Pete nodded in affirmation, but looked a little disgruntled. “Hey, you’re not bent out of shape about the background check we ran on you, are ya?”
     Pete smirked. “Give me the CliffsNotes version, Pete. Where are we on missile defense?” He already knew the answer. The government had led aerospace contractors down a roller coaster path for some time now. Most of the technology to perform the NMD job had already been developed, but the United States had not yet deployed an anti-missile defense system. However, he wanted to hear Pete’s response.
     “Mark, you know as well as I do that we don’t have one. We obviously have the offensive nuclear missile deterrent. But a covert surprise attack on the U.S. would wipe us out.”
     “And that’s the reason you’re here, Pete,” Mark settled into his chair and lit up a cigar, “but as I mentioned earlier, I can’t tell you why at this point. You’ll have to trust me.” He and Pete exchanged sharp glances before he continued, “Can you come to Washington for a while?”
     Pete avoided the question momentarily. “I do have a job, you know. Why in blazes is the CIA heading this up and not the Department of Defense, Mark?”
     “I can’t tell you that either, Pete.”
     Pete sighed. “Can I let you know tomorrow, after I sleep on it some?”
     “Time is of the essence...” Mark caught himself, as Pete lifted both eyebrows. “...so go sleep on it, Pete. Or if you can’t sleep on it, toss and turn on it.”


     As Marilyn Strong folded her daughter’s clothes, her mind wandered to the meaning of life—well, at least her life. More specifically, the part of it that had felt empty since she and Pete had separated. She paused in front of the mirror. She was still a vibrant woman, still able to attract men, but without him, she felt a gaping hole. The ringing kitchen phone interrupted her reflections. Pete. Speak of the devil, and there he appears.
     “Marilyn, something’s come up that I need to discuss with you right away.” His voice tensed. “It’s important.”
     Annoyed at Pete’s lack of warning, she responded, “Pete, I already have plans for tonight.”
     “Lyn, I know it’s last minute, but please...”
     She sighed, brushing her long, blond hair behind her ear. “All right, Pete. I’ll call Phil and cancel if it’s that important.”
     He ignored the reference to her boyfriend. “How about our place up in the Santa Cruz Mountains—the Shadowbrook Restaurant?”
     “Boy, that will bring back some memories,” she said, not knowing if they were memories that she wanted dredged up right now.
     “How about if I pick you up at five?”
     Marilyn glanced at the clock on her stove-top. “I’ll be ready.”

     While Pete drove to his ex-wife’s house, thoughts ricocheted through his mind. I hope Marilyn won’t ask me about church. Why on earth did God allow this break-up in the first place? Dating? How could she be dating already? Well, at least she’s talking to me again, but is our relationship doomed forever if I go back to the CIA?
     As he pulled into the driveway of the two-story, Spanish-style home where they had lived for many years, memories flooded his brain. Softball games. Swimming pool parties. Birthday barbecues. He waved to his former neighbor, who returned the greeting. Marilyn answered the doorbell immediately. He couldn’t keep his eyes off of her. She had on the same dress that she had worn on their last anniversary, a beautiful blue sequined affair with a lace collar. Her slim figure still attracted him.
     “Marilyn, you look beautiful.” Yanking on his sports coat, he added, “I guess I’m a little under dressed.”
     She shook her head and guffawed. “If you weren’t, I wouldn’t know you. Let’s go.”
     The drive to the restaurant was refreshing as they chatted pleasantly. Marilyn brought him up-to-date on his daughters’ goings-on while Pete tried to share several hopeful glances. This was where Pete had proposed to Marilyn some fifteen years ago. As the couple entered the restaurant, Pete tried to ignore the heads of men turning to eye his beautiful wife. Her elegant figure and her flowing blond hair still attracted the male of the species, who often paid with bruised shins from their glaring wives. Escorted to their special table by a stiff, officious waiter, they sat quietly for a few moments, both obviously immersed in reverie.
     Noticing a small tear in her eye, Pete asked, “What is it, Lyn?”
     Her voice had softened, but she avoided looking at him. “Oh, it’s just...the last time we were here, Pete. That was the happiest time in my life.”
     Pete gently caressed her hand, not saying a word.
     “I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to feel that way again.” Marilyn focused her gaze on him, her eyes full of paralyzing pain.
     He nudged her hand, trying to change the subject. “Let’s order, Lyn. I wonder if the prime rib is as good as last time.”
“It could never be as good as last time, Pete,” she said, as she jerked her hand away from his, “but, sure, let’s order.”
     Pete took a deep breath. “Marilyn, I need to talk to you. I don’t know how it’s going to affect us and—” he began.
     Her expression changed to that old look of dreadful anticipation. “What is it, Pete?”
     He focused his eyes on his bread plate. “It’s Mark McKendrick. He wants me to help him out on some secret project, but he won’t tell me what it’s about, just that it’s a matter of national security.”
     “Yes, go on, Pete,” she said, in a barely audible voice.
  “It’s a temporary assignment only—two, maybe three months—in Washington.” He began to feel a little more at ease. At least she hadn’t exploded yet. He folded his menu and stared at the cover. “Please, Lyn, I really am struggling with this decision. But I won’t do it if you’re against it.” He slowly looked up at her.
     “Pete, we’re separated,” she reminded him, looking away. “I don’t want to influence you one way or the other. It’s up to you.”
     He decided to confess the real reason for this dinner. Summoning his courage, he said, “Marilyn, I guess I’ll have to say it. I love you, and I don’t want to hurt our chances for reconciliation.”
     She slowly returned her eyes to his, “I can’t commit to anything, Pete,” she said, with a hint of resentment. “I still have feelings for you, but also a lot of reservations. You always said, ‘It won’t be long, honey. Only a few months, and we’ll be together again.’ Do you know how many times I’ve heard that? How many months does it take to make a year, then two, then five? You were gone for the birth of our first, then our second child…how many ball games, recitals, broken hearts were you there for? I had to be both mother and father to our girls. They don’t even know you—I don’t even know you anymore. I used to love that James Bond mystery thing, and I know you still do, but I can’t do it anymore. I can’t take the thought of you dead who-knows-where.”
     She turned her glance back toward the wall, and her voice broke. “I just can’t take it, Pete.”
     “I’m not saying that I’m joining the CIA. It’s just an emergency assignment,” he promised. “Please, Lyn, can’t you accept it? I’ll be back here after it’s over.”
     “When will there not be a national emergency, Pete?” she asked. “Anyway, I’m not going anywhere. Go save the world. I’ll talk to you when you get back.”
     For a brief instant of time, the couple looked at each other in the same exciting way that they had when they were courting. They had unfinished business and the frustration that accompanied it, but they also had more than a hint of hope.

     After dropping Marilyn back home, he phoned Mark to confirm what he suspected his friend already knew.
     “So, what about Marilyn?” Mark asked.
     “I can only hope she’ll be here when I get back, Mark…but I’ve got to do it.” Pete’s hands sweated because he secretly suspected that this decision would affect his life for a long time to come.
     “It’s late now,” said Mark. “Can you go to Washington this weekend? Monday at the latest?”
     “That soon? What about Marlock?”
     “Tell them you have a family emergency. That’s all anyone needs to know.”
     “Okay. We need to make travel arrangements.”
     “Already done. I knew you’d go. I’ll e-mail the itinerary to you. See you at the airport, pardner.”
     As they hung up, Pete felt a strong sense of their old camaraderie again.