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An excerpt from

Zero Line Vol 1: Incite


“So that was your first murder?”
“No. It was my first kill,” I respond. “It wasn’t planned. I’m not a murderer. I killed him, but I’m not . . . it’s not what you think.”
He sits down across from me at the table in the corner by the hotel window. My left wrist is handcuffed to the armrest, but it’s an old wooden chair, and when I lean back, the arm comes out of joint. I haven’t tried to push back far enough to get my handcuff off the arm yet. I have to be ready to roll when I do that. I only have one shot at escape.
“How is that not murder?” he asks, his face a mask.
“It was self-defense.” My heart is in my chest. I can’t even tell if I’m bluffing anymore, or if it’s the truth.
“You had just killed two other men. Was that self-defense too?”
“I didn’t kill two men.”
“Your friends did.” The agent—I don’t know if he’s CIA or FBI or what—stands up from his chair and paces the room. I don’t know what to say to him. All I know is that I’ve got to get out of here, fast. The team is counting on me. We don’t have much time.
“The cop,” I say, thinking fast, “had just shot my friend in the chest.”
“Your friend was shot in the chest while you were robbing a store at gunpoint. You face charges of grand larceny, assault with a deadly weapon, and murder, and that doesn’t begin to address what you’re doing here in Germany.”
He is the only agent here—alone and stupid. He’s from the US consulate, and he clearly has no idea who he’s dealing with. He thinks I’m just a run-of-the-mill terrorist. But I’m not. I’m Zero line. What we are doing is so much bigger than one local cop’s life. So much bigger than an FBI agent. So much bigger than me. He’s wasting my time, and time is the one thing we need on our side.
“Listen,” I say, “can I use the bathroom? You’ve had me handcuffed here for two hours.” I’ve also scanned the place for anything I can use to escape. It’s no prison—it’s a hotel. Someone slept in the bed last night. It’s probably this agent’s personal room.
He stares at me through narrowed eyes. “I’ll let you get up when you’re finished answering my questions.” He leans forward, trying to intimidate me. “Why are you in Munich? What’s your plan here?”
“I want a lawyer.”
“We’re not in the United States,” he says. “Different rules.”
“Different rules?” I say, nervously laughing a little bit. “You’re an American, I’m an American. The Constitution guarantees my rights.”
“Here’s the passenger manifest from your flight. I’m going to read through the names, and you’re going to tell me who else is in your group.”
“Seriously?” I say, and laugh. “You have no idea what is going on. No idea.”
“I know that you are part of a terrorist group. That you’re here to make a political statement at the Olympics.”
“I’m not a terrorist. I didn’t have any friends on the plane. I’m not here to make a political statement,” I say flatly and truthfully.
“I don’t believe you, kid.”
While the agent talks, I lean back in my chair. The armrest isn’t moving enough. The joint is loose, but the back of the chair hits the wall, and I’m not able to squeeze the handcuff out through the gap. I grip the armrest, try to guess its weight.
He’s sitting again, and his chair is scooted all the way in to the table. “I know you’re not here alone. Who else from the plane is working with you? I’m not going to ask again.”
“You’re wasting my time,” I say. “I need to get out of here. I don’t have time.”
I grip the arm of the chair with my handcuffed left hand.
“If it’s so important, why won’t you tell me what it is?”
I shove the table with my right hand, tipping it into the agent’s stomach. I leap to my feet, yank up the chair, and smash it into him. It loses some of its momentum as it scrapes against the wall, but I’m still able to bring it down on him hard. The chair breaks as it hits his shoulder and the table, but the armrest is still in my hand. I beat him across the face with it until he goes down. He’s dazed, and I scramble out from behind the table and pieces of broken chair.
He goes for his gun, slowly pushing the broken chair away. He’s bleeding from his head—a lot. I hit him again with the armrest and then give him a right hook. He’s not struggling anymore, and I grab his pistol from his holster.
I pull the broken armrest out of the handcuff and kneel down next to him to find his keys. I grab them just as he tries to throw a weak punch. It catches me off guard, and I stumble back slightly. But I have his keys and gun, and I hold the pistol in my left hand while I unlock the cuffs.
He looks up at me, his eyes barely open. “Who are you?”
“I’m Zero line. This is Endgame. I’m in Munich to save the world.”

Chapter One

It was a beautiful May afternoon as the bus drove into Berkeley. I was finally getting out on my own, leaving Pasadena, my job, and my parents behind. My mom had given me a halfhearted hug. We’d never been close. I wondered if my mom had ever been close to anyone. She was small and subservient and never talked.
My dad did the talking for both of them. He barked orders around the house from the minute he got home at night until long after I’d gone to my room.
He’d never wanted me to go to college. Well, to tell the truth, I was never sure what he wanted of me. After high school, I tried working at the family business for a year—Dad ran a furniture store—and I couldn’t remember doing anything that he approved of. I could never meet the outrageous quotas that he gave me, and he certainly didn’t make an effort to teach me anything. But when I told him I was going to college—that I’d saved up enough for tuition—he sneered at me as though I’d just said I was joining the circus.
But I’d held on to my money—everything I’d ever earned at the furniture store, and everything I’d earned the summers I’d worked for the Forest Service. My friends loved to go out to movies and dinner and spend money on girls and weed, but I knew I needed to be a penny-pinching miser if I ever planned to get out from under Dad’s thumb.
After I told him that I was going to Berkeley, of all places, he stopped talking to me. It was the best two months I’d ever had at home.
I wasn’t starting school until the fall, but I’d managed to get a janitorial job cleaning the empty dorms over the summer. The school let me move in early, into one of the dorms that held guys year-round, and it gave me a chance to earn a little more money and leave my parents’ house.
I couldn’t help smiling on the bus. This was everything I wanted. Freedom. A place where I could be in the middle of the action: the protests, the rallies, the parties, the free life and free love. I wanted a place where I could be my own man, voice my own opinions, be part of something important.
I was finally there.
After checking in at the administration building, I found my dorm and headed upstairs to room 117.
“Hey!” a guy said, jumping up when I opened the door. “Are you the new guy? I’ve been expecting you!”
“I’m the new guy.” I had a backpack and an old duffel bag I used to store my football gear in, and dropped them both on the empty bed. “Mike Stavros.” I held out my hand to him.
He shook it enthusiastically. He had medium brown skin and black hair that fell to his shoulders. “Tommy. Tommy Selestewa.”
“Good to meet you.”
“What are you here for? They told me you were coming, but I don’t know why anyone would come this time of year. School just got out.”
“Job brought me early,” I said. “Why are you still here?”
“Just trying to graduate earlier. I’m a sophomore, and I don’t have anything else to do—no reason to take summer off. I’ve loaded up on classes.” Tommy sat down at his desk. “Got a major?”
“Not sure yet. I’m thinking city planning, or forestry. Or maybe political science.” I sat on my bed. The mattress was thin and hard.
Tommy laughed a little. “No worries, man, you’ve got time.”
I looked at Tommy’s desk and bookshelf. He had a typewriter. A book lay open beside it—Plato’s Republic—and under it was Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle. It made me feel a little small that my roommate was studying such great philosophies. This was why I’d wanted to come to college. To learn about something bigger than myself.
“I used to work for the Forest Service,” I said, “during my summers in high school. I was part of a fire crew that saved a neighborhood from a forest fire. It was coming from two sides, and we were able to redirect the flames. I was really proud of that. It makes me want to do something that will make a difference. Become someone important. Or, well, just do something important. Not just be a furniture salesman like my old man.”
“Why school, then? Why not join the fire department?”
“I thought about that, but I decided that, on the fire crew, I was just one person with a shovel and a mattock. What if I could do something bigger? Design a subdivision where fires are less likely? What if I could invent something—some kind of emergency sprinkler, or I don’t know what. Something.”
“I get that,” he said. “So you want to fight fires on a big scale.”
“Not necessarily fires. Anything, as long as it’s something worth fighting for. My old man has never done shit. I just haven’t figured out what I’m going to do yet.” I smiled. “How about you?”
“I haven’t declared yet. I’ve just been doing my generals. I think I’ll end up in engineering. But this summer I’m taking a lot of ancient history classes.”
“Whoa. Those are pretty different.”
“I read a lot.” He motioned to the bookshelf above his desk. It was filled with titles like Turning Points in Ancient History and Inventions of the Gods. “I’m sure I’ll be boring you to death with some of my theories soon.”
“Go for it. I have nothing else to do. I don’t know anyone north of Santa Barbara, and I was worried it was going to be a long, lonely summer.”
Tommy laughed. “You want to go out tonight? Some of my friends and I were talking about having some beers, shooting some pool. Interested?”
I was exhausted, but I didn’t care. I was finally on my own, and I couldn’t wait to celebrate. “Absolutely. What time?”

Tito’s was a local dive, about a 20-minute walk from our dorm. It was busy, and Tommy led me through the crowd of students to a row of pool tables in the back. There was no one in the place who looked over 30, but they were all dressed better than average. Tommy had changed from jeans and a T-shirt into corduroys and a zippered sweater. I was more casual—a pair of beat-up jeans and a Rose Bowl sweatshirt.
A small group in the back called out to Tommy, and we made our way over to them.
“Guys,” he said. “This is Mike, my new roomie. Mike, meet Jim, Julia, and Mary.”
“Hi,” I said, and stretched out my hand. Jim grabbed it. He was black, with silver-rimmed glasses and a newsboy cap.
“Jim Jefferson,” he said. “Not James, definitely not JJ.”
“Mike Stavros,” I said back. “Good to meet you.” But my eyes weren’t on him. They were glued to the blonde sitting next to him, the one Tommy had called Mary.
I reached out my hand to her.
She took it in a firm grip and stood up. “This isn’t a business meeting, you know.”
“Is shaking hands too formal?” I asked, letting go and laughing at myself. “I’ve been living the life of a furniture salesman. Salesmen shake hands with people. It makes them feel at ease.”
Mary laughed, a sweet, melodic tone. “I can assure you, I’m feeling very at ease.” She picked up her beer and took a quick sip.
“I’m Julia,” the next woman said. She was black, with short hair, and dressed in purple paisley. She reached for my hand, and I shook back. “Where you from?”
“Pasadena,” I said. “You guys?”
“Northern California,” Mary said. “Ever heard of Susanville?”
“You’re not missing out,” she said with a quick laugh. “I grew up north of there on a ranch. Moved to Piedmont when my dad retired.”
“I’ve never heard of Piedmont either,” I said, and she laughed again.
“Touché, Mike.” I beamed.
“So, how’d you all become friends?”
I noticed a look between Tommy and Mary. Mary shook her head slightly. My stomach dipped—I hoped that didn’t mean they were together.
“Julia and I are locals,” Jim said. “Grew up in Oakland, known each other since kindergarten. You play pool?”
“A little.”
“Eight ball,” Jim said. “You and Mary, me and Julia.” He handed me a cue.
I was about six feet tall, and Mary had to be a foot shorter than me. But she was gorgeous. Long, blond, curly hair that flowed loose down her shoulders like a waterfall. I didn’t want to say no to being on her team, but I turned to Tommy.
“That’ll leave you out.”
“The night is young,” he said. “I’m going to get something to drink. Want anything?”
“Not now,” I said.
Julia racked the balls and stood back. Mary looked at me. “You wanna break?”
“You go for it,” I said. I hadn’t played a lot of pool at home, and I wanted to pull off looking cool in front of this girl for as long as I could.
She broke, and the 14 ball fell into a side pocket.
“Do all of you guys go to Berkeley?” I asked.
“We do,” Jim said, gesturing to himself and Julia. “Art program. She paints; I sculpt.”
“Not me,” Mary said, lining up her new shot. “Stanford. Prelaw.”
“It gets better,” Julia said. “She’s there on scholarship. Smart kid.”
“Why are you here if you’re at Stanford? That’s like an hour away.”
“Taking a quarter off” she said. “I’m interning for a firm across the bay. Divorces and bankruptcies.” She rolled her eyes and added, “Real exciting stuff.” She missed her shot.
Julia took a pull from her beer and bent down, taking aim at the 3 ball.
“So, Mike,” Jim asked, “why are you showing up in the summer?”
“I’m starting in the fall,” I said, “but I got a job over the summer. It’s no internship with a law firm, though. You’re looking at Berkeley’s newest janitorial staff member.”
“Nice,” Jim said, with a laugh. “I hope you’re not the poor sap who has to clean up Wurster Hall. My studio is a mess.”
Julia missed, and I was up. I searched for a good shot. There was a long one, right along the bumper. I knew I couldn’t make it, so I tried a closer, easier shot and missed, of course.
“No worries,” I said. “Just cleaning out empty dorms.”
Jim was really good. He got three balls in before missing on an awkward, reaching shot.
Tommy came back with a beer.
“So,” I said, as Mary leaned over to take her shot, “prelaw, huh? What kind of lawyer do you want to be?”
“It’s better to ask what kind of lawyer I wanted to be. I’m probably going to drop out. The biggest thing I’ve learned about the law is that I hate it. Taking notes during back-to-back-to-back divorce settlements has made me swear off marriage too.”
“John!” Tommy shouted. At once, the whole group turned. Someone was walking toward us, a huge grin on his face. Everyone smiled wide when they saw him.
“Tommy!” The guy waved as he made his way over. John was tall, wearing jeans and the coolest jacket I’d ever seen. It was denim, but embroidered intricately all over the back, shoulders, and arms. Bright splashes of color—flowers, spirals, and a peace symbol.
It was clear everyone in the place knew him. He slapped hands with the people at the bar and hugged one of the waitresses.
“What’s up, man?” Jim asked, and gave him a hug, thumping him loudly on the back. John kissed Julia and Mary each on the cheek. When he got to Tommy, they did some kind of secret handshake.
“Everything is up, guys. It is a good day.” He turned to the waitress and shouted, “Bring a round of—what are you guys drinking? Looks like three beers and a . . . What’s that, Julia?”
“Three beers, a Jack, and I’ll take a Scotch and water.” He turned, noticing me for the first time. “You want a drink?”
“No thanks, I’m good.”
“Suit yourself. I’m John, man. Good to meet you.” He stretched out his hand and I took it.
“Mike,” I said.
“Cool,” he said, clapping me on the shoulder. “So who brought you?”
“Tommy,” I said. “I’m his new roommate. Spent the day on a bus ride from Pasadena, and this is my first look at Berkeley nightlife.”
“Well, we better make it a good one, then. You’re not drinking anything, so we’ll need a higher level of discourse.”
Tommy laughed. “Higher than beer and pool?”
“Did you guys see the news today?” John asked as he sat down. I looked back at the pool table. It was my turn.
“No,” Julia said, her brow crinkling. “I was in the studio all day. What’s happening?”
“The bastard just said that he’s mining Haiphong Harbor.”
“The bastard?” I asked. I took a shot and missed the pocket by an inch.
“We don’t say his name,” Jim said with a laugh.
Mary laughed. “If you say Nixon three times into a mirror, he’ll appear next to you.”
“What’s Haiphong Harbor?” I asked.
John took off his hat and twirled it in his hands. “Don’t know your Vietnam geography?”
“I know Hanoi and I know Saigon,” I said. “I know the Ho Chi Minh Trail and the Gulf of Tonkin.”
“And what, may I ask, is your position on the war?”
It was Mary’s turn, and she drilled the 5 ball into the side pocket. She held out her hand as she walked past me and I slapped it. “Good shot.”
“Thank you.” She lined up another one.
“My father,” I said to John, “would tell you that the Vietnam War is being fought to prevent the vile spread of Red Communism and strengthen our alliance with Australia. I worked with him nine to seven almost every day of the year, selling furniture, and he said that at least four times a week.”
John smiled and put his hat back on. “And what do you say?”
“I think we’re sending kids over there to die just so the president can say we’re doing something about the ‘communist threat,’ with the false belief that, as a superpower, we have the right to invade any small country we want.”
Mary knocked in the 7 ball and then stood up.
John nodded his agreement, and the waitress arrived. She set the drinks on the table beside John. John paid her and, if I was seeing correctly, gave her a huge tip.
“And today,” John said, “the bastard has declared that he’s going to be placing mines in Haiphong Harbor, the main port of North Vietnam. There are military ships in those waters, but it’ll mostly affect imports, like food and medical care. Yeah, it will hurt the army, but it’s sure as hell going to hurt the civilians more.”
Jim nudged me. “He was over there.”
“You’re a vet?” I looked at John.
He stared back at me and then pulled up his sleeve. There was a tattoo of a skull wearing a green beret.
Mary walked over next to me. “You coming? I don’t want to have to win this all by myself.”
“She could too,” John said.
I stood up. John looked older than everyone else. He looked weathered. “John, what do you do?” I asked.
John exhaled, a deep, slow breath. “It’s a long story.”
Mary pulled on my arm. “Come on.”
He grinned. “It’s called Endgame. Now go play pool.”