Cold Barrel Zero


By Matthew Quirk

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John Hayes is a Special Operations legend who went rogue on a deep-cover mission and betrayed his own soldiers. Disgraced and on the run, he returns to the United States to get back to his wife and daughter and take revenge on his accusers with a series of devastating attacks.

Only one man can stop him: Thomas Byrne. He once fought alongside Hayes as a combat medic, but he gave up the gun. Now a surgeon, he moves from town to town, trying to forget his past, until he is called upon by a high-ranking government official to help capture the man he once called a friend. Hayes and Byrne were once as close as brothers, but with the fate of the nation hanging in the balance and nothing as it seems, both men must decide whom to trust — and whom to betray.

In a final, explosive battle for justice, they face off along a rifle’s cold barrel. Cold Barrel Zero brings together the blistering pace of Lee Child, the nonstop action of Brad Thor, and the richly drawn characters and moral stakes of Daniel Silva. An experienced reporter armed with deep behind-the-scenes research into America’s Special Operations Forces, Quirk takes the military thriller to a new level of suspense.



THEY WOULD COME for him at night, so Hayes was awake. He finished with his codes and laid his Bible on a makeshift table: a plank set across two splintering crates. He never really slept anymore, just rested for a few hours during the day, lying dressed on the floor on top of a thin blanket.

He brushed a mosquito from his arm where a patch of rough scar showed under the sleeve of his T-shirt. Once it had been a tattoo—a combat diver and jump wings, the seal of the First Force Reconnaissance Marines—but two years ago he’d had to take it off.

A sparrow perched on the branch of a tree outside. As Hayes watched it, his thoughts drifted back to the dead.

It flew off. Another bird followed, then a dozen more. The rustle of wings surrounded the hut as hundreds of them rose, filled the sky, and blotted out the stars.

Hayes stood, slung his rifle over his shoulder, grabbed his bag, and sprinted through the door of his compound, leaving the light on behind him. He stopped after seventy-five meters—danger-close range for the Hellfires—and ducked behind the trunk of a Meru oak. He could have gone farther, but he needed cover between him and the sky.

Drones are silent, despite all the myths locals like to believe about death buzzing over their heads. If the machines allow themselves to be heard, it’s a show of intimidation. When they come to kill, they stay high and make no noise. Hellfires move faster than sound, so the target dies unaware that he has been hit.

He knew it was futile, but he scanned the sky anyway. The odds of catching a reflection from the sensor ball were almost nil.

A hare bolted across the savanna. Above him, a sparrow returned, looked at him hiding behind the tree, and cocked its head.

“I know,” Hayes said, and took a deep breath. Too long running. Too long alone. The paranoia was getting to him. He’d been speaking a mix of Egyptian Arabic and French with a Belgian accent for the last month, passing himself off as a mineral engineer. He needed to get across the border.

The rest of the flock settled. He relieved himself against the tree, then started back toward the house. Three seconds later, a sonic boom punched him in the stomach and ears. It felt like a small, close explosion.

The shock wave from the blast knocked him back on his heels. Flames licked red through the rising cloud of black smoke. As the debris showered down, he threw himself behind a tree and waited a moment for the disorientation to pass.

He stayed there until the smoke expanded enough to cover him from above, then ducked low and stepped through the wreckage toward his truck, an ancient Land Rover Defender.

Strong winds blew from the east. The smoke would lift in a few seconds and the drone would see him with its infrared cameras. He’d run the drill himself dozens of times, calling in strikes with an infrared laser. The drone would circle back and then clean up the squirters with its second missile.

A smoldering piece of plywood lay on the ground beside him, a foot from the waist-high grass that surrounded the compound. He needed cover. The fire might work, or it might kill him. There was no time to think twice. He kicked the wood into the brush. White smoke twined up and joined the last black fumes from the demolished house.

He stepped into the truck. The natural instinct was to speed from the blast, from the eyes above, but he waited, calm.

The wind caught the embers, and the grass became a wall of fire rushing toward him. He started the engine but didn’t move. Only when the flames reached the rear bumper did he touch the throttle and begin to roll along slowly, keeping a few feet ahead of the blaze roaring behind him. The heat wavered the air in his mirrors. The curtain of smoke and heat would conceal everything the Predator had, visual and IR. He would be safe as long as he stayed cradled in the fire. It grew, faster now, and he just outpaced it, bucking at twenty, thirty, forty miles an hour over the rutted tracks through the grasslands, moving with the flames toward the wooded foothills and highlands beyond.

The fire jumped ahead. He checked the speedometer. Any faster and he would break an axle.

The rear window blew out from the heat.

The forest was close. It would give him cover. There were too many ways in and out to find him. The fire leaped ahead and swallowed the truck.

He pressed the pedal to the floor. He had to get through to warn the others.

The hunt had begun.

Chapter 1

MORET YAWNED AS she walked past the only grocery store in town, a Chinese-run market. Dust caked her skin. She had been on the highlands for three days and nights. She spent most of her time hunting, both to feed herself and to cover her expenses with guide work, trophies, and bounties. A pool of brown, foul water filled half the square. She circled around it.

She left her dog, a boxer mutt, in the passenger seat of the truck with the window cracked and headed for a storefront off the main path. She came every week. Fax and ADSL were hand-painted on the window below Arabic script. She pulled her headscarf forward, looked away from the security camera, and took a terminal in the far back. She opened up the browser and went to Hotmail.

She double-checked the date—the twelfth of October. From her shoulder bag, she pulled out a small volume with a cloth cover over the original leather. It was a Bible, the most common book in the world, the King James Version.

They were using a book cipher based on the date. The twelfth; she counted off twelve books, which brought her to the Second Book of Kings. October, the tenth month; she went down ten chapters. And, finally, she used the last two digits of the current year to count down verses. Her finger rested on the page:

And he said, Take them alive. And they took them alive, and slew them at the pit of the shearing house, even two and forty men; neither left he any of them.

She took the first letters of the first ten words and typed them in as her username: Then she proceeded to the next verse and used the number and the first ten letters as her password: 15AwhwdthloJ.

She had done this every Sunday for the past two years, and every Sunday she had found nothing. She was starting to hate this ritual. It felt like rolling over in the morning and reaching for a spouse long dead.

Each account was used only once. She clicked on the spam folder and skimmed the page. There wasn’t much because of the randomness of the username. Then she saw it—the fourth message down. She thought at first it must be a mistake, but no; it was what she had been waiting for. It read like any other prescription-pill come-on, but for two years she had been waiting to see this sender’s name: John Okoye27.

She clicked on the e-mail. Best and Cheapest Premier Pharmacy! the text read. What interested her was the embedded JPEG file at the bottom of the screen. It showed a blue diamond-shaped pill. The colors looked normal to the naked eye, but the pixel data had been manipulated, with extra bits written over the least significant color codes.

Photos modified with this embedding technique, called steganography, appeared as normal file attachments. An encrypted message wouldn’t be able to withstand the NSA’s deciphering tools, and encryption would only draw attention to it. That was why Moret’s instructions masqueraded as spam, hiding in plain sight, just one more drop in the sea of garbage coursing through the web.

She downloaded an open-source program from the Internet and extracted the message embedded in the photo. It was a sequence of fourteen letters and numbers, which she broke into grid-zone designator, 100,000-meter square ID, and position north and east, down to the meter. They were MGRS coordinates, the military’s version of latitude and longitude.

She memorized them, then took a disc from her bag and inserted it in the computer. It spun and began wiping the machine’s hard drive.

She returned to her truck, a rusting Toyota Hilux. She kept everything she owned in it. A battered Pelican case behind the seats contained an Mk 11 Mod 0 sniper rifle, a nightscope, and a suppressor. She’d removed the passenger airbag to make room for a hidden compartment, known as a trap. The only way to open it was to press down both window buttons and the hazard lights for three seconds. Inside there was $90,000 in U.S. currency, five passports, and a 1911 pistol with no serial number.

The boxer cocked his head at her. She opened the door and led him out of the car. She ran her hand over his head a few times, then climbed back in and drove off. In the rearview, she watched the dog fall back, sprinting after her through the mud, disappearing slowly in the distance.


Seventy-five hundred miles away, a screwdriver rested on the open pages of Speed’s Bible. Electronics and machinery spilled their insides over every horizontal surface of his one-bedroom house. It hadn’t taken long for word to spread through the peninsula about his ability to fix anything. The pocket watch in his hands had been a labor of love; he’d carefully tweezed apart the workings, even milled a new balance staff. He had been planning to drop it off at the apartment above the billiards hall on his way out of town when someone knocked on his door. He wiped the sweat from his face, drew back the mosquito netting, and answered, as always, with a pistol drawn.

It was Emiliano. The people in the village loved to watch Speed work, piecing together gears and screws a few millimeters wide, his long fingers moving like spiders. But today he just handed the boy the watch through the partly open door, refused the crumpled pesos, and sent him away. He packed his tools and a few leather cases marked Falle in his backpack, walked the half a mile to the coast road, and waited an hour to catch the fifty-year-old yellow school bus that now served as the intercity line.

Speed found a seat. His bag held two kilos of HDX high explosive. He set it down between his feet next to an old woman’s purse and a sack of red potatoes.


At the same moment that Sunday, in a time zone eight hours ahead, Green locked the front door to his Communist-era apartment building. He took the key off his ring and dropped it through the grate of a sewer. He had been planning to move on anyway. He had helped out his neighbor’s daughter first, resetting a badly broken radius and ulna. Soon more came, because they couldn’t afford a doctor, or because they couldn’t afford to draw attention to their injuries. Too many people were looking for him, and more and more were showing up with professionally laid-on bruises and welts, which meant internal security, which meant trouble.

He rounded the corner and saw the girl climbing in the apartment complex’s playground. The arm had healed nicely. She waved to him from the top of the slide. He waved back as he passed through the gate, then he tucked his chin down against the freezing wind and headed for the footbridge over the highway.

One by one they opened their Bibles and made their way to the stashes: cash, explosives, small arms, frequency-hopping radios, false papers, instructions on the target, and specifics of how to slip across the U.S. border.

They knew the stakes if they were caught. Aiding the enemy was punishable by death. But that didn’t matter. They were coming home, all of them. He was calling. It was time.

Chapter 2

A MAN SOME called Hayes put his spotting scope down on the passenger seat. The skin on his forearm was mostly healed from when he’d burned it in the brushfire.

Hayes had been waiting for the moment for a long time. They were on the kill list. He knew the routine all too well: find, fix, finish. They would be tracked down one by one. That’s why he had sent the messages, why he had gathered them together. He was already inside the United States. So was Green. The time for running was past. He had to make a stand, to take them down from the inside. And soon he would have the means.

But first, he had to see her, even though he knew it was a mistake. He crossed Orchard Road, then skirted the split-rail fence. Daytime, suburbs, male; he’d picked clothes to blend in. He wore Dickies and a short-sleeved button-down, just another contractor, pest control if stopped. The movements came automatically as he closed the distance: fast when the wind blew and the rustling leaves covered the noise of his steps, tall and relaxed through the dead space behind a knoll, slow when out of cover. He stayed downwind, moving closer and closer, everything he’d learned in the stalk, everything he’d taught to so many. He missed the weight of his rifle.

At the edge of the trees, he paused and looked over the house, a ranch on two acres. A basket of black-eyed Susan vines hung in the kitchen window. Lauren’s clothes swayed gently on the drying line in the back. It was as if nothing had changed. She had parked the F-150 so the two passenger-side wheels rested on the curb. He saw her walk away from it, balancing the oil pan with both hands. Her hair was up in a ponytail, and she was wearing one of his old flannel work shirts.

He saw movement fifty feet away; at the edge of the backyard, a two-year-old girl in a puffy vest climbed up a pile of mulch.

Hayes thrived on stress, enjoyed the stimulation. It’s why he was chosen, how he survived, through selection and a dozen deployments. He could regulate his breathing, lower his heartbeat, manage his cortisol levels. But suddenly he didn’t trust his body, doubted his control.

The girl jumped off the top, landed hard, fell, and came up with dirt all along her right side. She examined her arm for a moment, then looked his way and began walking straight toward him. He was a little disappointed that after everyone he had killed, unseen, with one shot from a cold barrel, he’d just been made by a toddler. It was impossible, unless he’d wanted to be seen.

Hayes felt his heart rate rise, easily past a hundred and ten now. This was a mistake. He was putting himself in danger, which didn’t matter, but he was putting them in danger too.

She moved closer, picked up a long stick, and dragged it behind her. She stood fifteen feet away. Hayes watched her. He didn’t move, couldn’t move. She had his mother’s eyes. He prayed for strength.

She turned her head to the side. “Who?” she said.

“Hey, kiddo.” He’d never seen her before and now she was in front of him, speaking. His pulse raced, past counting. He swallowed and it caught in his throat.

The girl looked back to her mother, then to Hayes.

“Mom!” she shouted. “Stranger!”

Good girl, Hayes thought. He watched her mother as she came around the corner of the house. Lauren looked older, with more gray in her hair than anyone deserved to have earned in two years, but still as beautiful, even more so.

How had she survived the shame he had brought her? He wanted to tell her how sorry he was, how the regret burned in him like a disease. He wanted more than anything to hold her, to feel their breath rise and fall together. But he had already gone too far. They didn’t deserve any more pain. And she was most likely armed and liable to call in the FBI.

No. He stepped back into the shadows. He couldn’t live like this, but the answer wasn’t here. He would use any means necessary to get back to them. He would do what he had been trained for, ingrained after so many years. Develop the situation. Increase the tempo. Audacity above all.

He slid through the woods, silent as sunlight, until he reached his box truck. He opened up the back door and pushed a camera with a telephoto lens to the side, then picked his radio up off a coil of detonation cord. Everything was ready. He’d be home soon, in this life or the next. The time had come to find out which.

Chapter 3

HELEN MCREARY WAS always the first to arrive at the Applications Personnel Support Office. The pain in her hands tended to wake her before dawn and by then her terrier was whining at the side of the bed. She looked forward to the quiet of the empty office, sitting at her desk with a travel mug of strong black coffee from home.

She opened the door, entered the bland front foyer, and brought her right eye a few inches from a plastic and steel box on the wall. The bolt retracted with a clunk. She stepped inside a short hallway and took a sip of coffee. As soon as the door behind her closed, the door ahead unlocked.

The gray slush outside had soaked her sneakers. She took them off, slid them under her desk, and pulled a pair of flats from her shoulder bag. She dialed the combination into her filing cabinet, opened the drawer, and flipped the sign stuck in the handle from the red side marked Closed to the green marked Open.

She took her hard drive from the drawer and inserted it into the dock on her computer. As it powered up, she put her smart card into the reader and logged in with her PIN. Once her terminal was ready, she checked her messages and navigated a secure database, noting on an index card the paper files she would need to pull that morning. She shut and locked the drawer, flipped the sign back, took her keys from her bag, picked up her mug, and crossed the office.

A fine metal mesh was embedded in the walls, floor, and ceiling, and copper contacts were built into the doorjambs. These transformed the entire suite into a Faraday cage, from which no electronic or radio signals could emerge. The outlets were filtered for the same reason, and there were no connections to the public Internet.

At the far end of the room, she turned her key in a lock, opened a steel door, and entered a corridor. Along one side were vault doors. She walked to the fourth and dialed in the combination. Five revolutions right, four left, three right, two left, and then a final spin until it stopped, which meant the bolt had drawn. The door opened slowly due to its weight. She flicked on the fluorescent lights, consulted her card, searched out the appropriate file drawer, and pulled it open.

The coffee mug slipped from her hand as she let out an uncharacteristically foul obscenity. As she grabbed for the falling mug, a gush of hot liquid ran over her hand. She ignored the burn, picked the cup off the floor, and stared into the drawer.

The cabinet was three feet wide and one foot deep. The thousand folders that normally filled it had been filed left to right. Now it was empty. She tried the one above it: empty. The next one over: gone.

She went to the vault door. The lock was intact, perfect. There hadn’t been a single thing out of place. It was as if the documents had simply vanished.

She entered the corridor and opened the next vault. The racks were empty; they had taken the hard drives too. She needed to make the call. At her desk, she pulled a directory from her drawer and picked up the phone. She looked under Joint Special Operations and dialed the Special Security office.

“I need rapid response at APSO. The records are gone.”

“Which records?”

“All of them.”

“I don’t understand. Is this urgent?”

McReary dropped the index card into the burn bag. “This is your career on the line. Put me through now.”

The command in her voice was unmistakable.

“Hold, please.”

She waited a moment as she was transferred and then explained what had happened.

“So this was a break-in?”

“There must have been a breach, but I don’t understand,” she said as she scanned the room. “There’s no trace. The biometrics are fine, the locks, the vault doors too. It’s like it all just disappeared.”


Six hours later, Cox knelt at the vault and examined the dial of the Sargent and Greenleaf combination lock. It was perfect, with no sign of any manipulation or forced entry, none of the marrings characteristic of a robot dialer. Cox’s formal title was special assistant to the secretary of defense. His job was to make problems go away. He was a brigadier general but traveled in civilian clothes.

The officer with direct oversight of APSO, Lieutenant Colonel Barnard, had come from Bragg and stood over him, arms held loosely behind his back. Cox had flown from DC on a C-20, the navy’s version of a Gulfstream jet, normally used only by general officers. That set Barnard on edge. Cox made no mention of his own rank. He found it easier to read people when they weren’t kissing his ass.

“If there’s no damage, we must have an inside job,” Barnard said. He put his hands on his hips, a tic to project authority. “Do we have the audit logs? We’ll simply find who entered and then case closed.”

Cox removed the last screw and pulled the back off the safe lock. “We already did.” Without standing up, Cox held a printout over his shoulder.

Barnard took it, scanned the entries for the previous night, and saw only his own name. “Me?” He made a noise that was a cross between laughing and clearing his throat. “I wasn’t here. This is impossible.”

“Not quite impossible. A high-res shot of your iris, superimposed over a live pupil; either a contact lens or a good printout could do it.” He unscrewed the wheel pack from the threaded rod. “What worries me is the Abloy Protec up front and the Sargent and Greenleaf here. There is no sign of picking or bypass.”

He held up a long threaded rod with the safe dial on the end, shone a light on it, and lifted his glasses to examine it up close. “I almost missed it. It’s too perfect. Zero wear. This is a new spindle and a new dial.”

“Well, let’s get the camera footage and see who it is.”

“That won’t help. I checked. They did the whole thing in the dark.”

“You’re telling me that anyone can just waltz in here and defeat four layers of the hardest security the U.S. government and Joint Special Operations Command can manage?”

“Not anyone. No.” Cox stood and wiped off his hands. “Only one of our guys could do it. The night-vision, the Abloy decoder, the tools for the safe bypass; we have them. No locksmiths. Only USG, a few teams at JSOC, the NSA, the CIA, and the FBI.”

This office had two names, one official and one known only to a few. That is why a C-20 had been sent to the front of the line on the tarmac at Joint Base Andrews with Cox on board. Applications Personnel Support Office was a cover, something for the org charts and paychecks. It was a name that could be handed out when an employee needed to list a reference for a bank or a landlord.

In reality, this office housed the security roster of the Defense Cover Program, which provided false identities to members of classified units within the Joint Special Operations Command. Their records were pulled from the normal military personnel system and stored here under lock and key with any connection between present and past erased. The members of these special mission units lived as civilians, under cover. That allowed the president to disavow any tier-one assets who were caught working behind enemy lines. It also firewalled the day-to-day identities of the soldiers in order to protect them and their families from enemy reprisals during and after their service.

“Good, then,” Barnard said. “That gives us a short list to work from. We’ll just narrow it down.”

“They stole everything we’d need to make that list. That’s probably the point.”

“You know we have assets unaccounted for. We lost track of Hayes and his team after the air strikes,” Barnard said. “But that would be insane, to enter the lion’s den.”

“If it is them, it’s brilliant.”

“We need to find these people.”

“Every cover identity available to them, every passport, every safe house, every cache of arms and currency is now lost to us. We barely know their real names.”

“But this entire program is designed for deniability, to protect us against them.”

“Now it’s working the other way. And the measures to guard their families against the bad guys are going to hide them from us. They stole the records of everything we’d use to find them in the United States: next of kin, associates, means of support.”

“For Christ’s sake. Someone has to know who these people are,” Barnard said. “We have the material from the investigations.”

“The annexes were kept here.” It had been Barnard’s order, a way to control the political damage to JSOC by limiting access to the details of Hayes’s crimes.

“You’re telling me that we have war criminals loose in the United States and they are goddamn ghosts! You know what these men are capable of.”


  • "Brilliantly conceived and exceedingly well written, this is a military thriller that relies as much on carefully drawn characters as it does on plot points; this is a story about people, about friends who have become enemies, about the importance and fragility of trust. Intense and compelling."—David Pitt, Winnipeg Free Press
  • "A relentlessly paced military thriller . . . Sophisticated storytelling [and] whiplash pacing . . . Cold Barrel Zero delivers some clever twists and startling surprises. . . . There are layers of moral ambiguity and questions at every turn."—Art Taylor, Washington Post
  • "Matthew Quirk has elevated to must-read thriller status faster than seems possible. Cold Barrel Zero is a brilliantly researched and written tour de force from an author who understands both high-stakes action and fine writing."—Michael Koryta, bestselling author of Last Words and Those Who Wish Me Dead
  • "Thriller Award-winner Quirk goes flat-out explosive in this superior military adventure novel. . . . There's plenty of cool cutting-edge technology, but in the end it comes down to action, and the riveting battle scenes are among the best in the business. Readers will look forward to seeing more of the skilled and deadly John Hayes."—Publishers Weekly (starred boxed review)
  • "Deadly. High-tech. Characters are well drawn and motivated, and their exploits are hair raising. Quirk spins an adrenaline-fueled, military-based action adventure skillfully. Another hard-to-put-down adventure from Quirk .... even more chilling for its air of plausibility. A fine thriller."—Booklist (starred review)
  • "[Quirk's] best book yet . . . Quirk delves deep into the world of international terror and covert operations, and writes with such authority you half expect his prose to be riddled with redactions. The action dazzles. The characters feel authentic and fully fleshed. The threats seem all too real."—Los Angeles Review of Books
  • "Adrenaline junkies need look no further than Matthew Quirk's Cold Barrel Zero for their next fix. The action is relentless and exceptionally inventive. . . . This is a must-read for fans of Jason Bourne or Jack Reacher."—BookPage
  • "Quirk's fast-paced plot keeps the pages turning as readers journey with Byrne on a dangerous adventure. Highly recommended for fans of rapid action with down-to-the-wire conclusions."—Library Journal (starred review)
  • "A lethal game of cat and mouse fuels Quirk's third and best novel, a military spy thriller in which one all-out conspiracy is met by another. . . . The story is expertly stripped down, the action relentless, and the characters multilayered. . . . [Quirk] takes a major step forward."—Kirkus Reviews
  • "Matthew Quirk's Cold Barrel Zero is an unputdownable blast! The writing is spare and masterful, you care about the characters, and the action is hair-raising, authentic, at times even mesmerizing. Cold Barrel Zero is one of the must-read thrillers of the year!"—Ben Coes, bestselling author of Coup D'Etat and Independence Day
  • "What separates Matt Quirk from other military thriller writers is his insider chops as a journalist who has covered the real-world versions of the stories he tells. Cold Barrel Zero is gripping and utterly convincing. It's the tale real agents and operators would tell if they had Matt Quirk's storytelling genius."—Steven Pressfield, bestselling author of The Afghan Campaign and The Legend of Bagger Vance
  • "Quirk's writings drips with the kind of eye for the telling detail that only a canny reporter, detective, or spy possesses....If you like Ludlum you are certain to like Quirk."—Ralph Benko, Forbes

On Sale
Jan 31, 2017
Page Count
400 pages
Mulholland Books

Matthew Quirk

About the Author

Matthew Quirk studied history and literature at Harvard College. After graduation, he spent five years at The Atlantic, reporting on a variety of subjects, including crime, private military contractors, the opium trade, terrorism prosecutions, and international gangs. He lives in San Diego.

Learn more about this author