The Agency (A Jed Walker Series Novel)
“Kudos to Mr. Phelan for turning out a first-rate thriller.”
Move over, Steve Berry, Vance Flynn, the Tom Clancy franchise, James Patterson, Jeffrey Deaver, and other thriller writers, and make room for James Phelan, one of the best, most exciting, and much underappreciated suspense writers in the genre.
Jed Walker joins the CIA in 2005 after 10 years in Air Force Special Ops. It’s either the CIA or accept a desk job at the Pentagon that would accompany his promotion in the Air Force. “But that wasn’t Walker’s style. Not now, with two wars in full swing. Not ever.”
Jed is one of only five who completed the CIA training, and he is the most accomplished. His performance leads to a night meeting with the one the recruits call “the smoking man.” Dressed mostly in black and always with a cigarette, Rob Richter holds a position of power in the CIA, although no one knows exactly what that position may be. “I represent another element of intelligence officers. A far smaller group. Extra-selective.”
Richter orders Jed to New Orleans just prior to Hurricane Katrina, but informs him that he will learn the mission when he arrives. At present he receives nothing but a duffle bag with dark clothes and false identity papers, plus instructions to meet a man in a New Orleans bar who will tell him what he needs to know to achieve his objective.
“He’s the guy who’ll tell you what you need to do. And you’ll do it, no question, no hesitation. Got that?”
What Jed doesn’t get is why the pretty woman with an indeterminate accent named Steph directs him to the men’s room where she had left him a gun. Nor does he understand why she warns him about the man he’s come to meet. “He’s not who you think he is. He’s here to kill you.”
Thanks to Steph’s warning Jed fires the first shot, killing the beefy man with the edgy expression in his eyes. “He’d seen that look plenty of times before. Calculation. Anticipation. And a substance.”
Escaping out the bar’s back door, Jed finds Steph waiting on a motor scooter. He learns she is a British agent on the trail of a buyer who is in the U.S. to buy something, but she doesn’t know what, and she needs Jed’s help. She figures that Jed is in New Orleans because his mission is also to stop the sale of whatever to whomever.
Whatever the “object” or “substance” is, it was originally built by the Russians, abandoned in Afghanistan when the Soviet army left that country with its tail between its legs, found by the Americans, then disappeared, but presumed to be somewhere in the U.S.
Jed doesn’t know whether to trust Steph or not, but she did save his life, which counts for something. But what is MI6 doing in the U.S. without notifying the government? Steph asks what the CIA is doing running an op on U.S. soil when that is the FBI’s prerogative?
The buyer or buyers are nominally Chechen, but actually Russians, front men for a Russian oligarch worth several billion. Supposedly the “whatever” is selling for several hundred million dollars, a sum that would buy any weapon system or even a Navy destroyer. According to Steph’s intelligence service, the whatever is supposed to change the balance of power.
Using what Steph describes as a “super-yacht” as their headquarters, the buyer or buyers are presently anchored in New Orleans, but could leave at any time. Steph wants the U.S. intelligence service to track the yacht.
Questions remain before Jed contacts Richter. Who was the man Jed met in the bar, a man who had just killed Jed’s real contact? He is not Russian, as his accent is that of someone from one of the border states, Tennessee or Kentucky. Is he an American traitor, a non-political hired killer, or someone Richter sent? But why would Richter kill his own agent?
Confusion is heightened when another duo of assassins attempt to kill Jed and Steph. When Jed identifies them as two of his classmates at the CIA’s training camp, he knows he can’t trust Richter.
With Hurricane Katrina barreling down on New Orleans, Jed and Steph flee the city with other refugees. They track the Russian yacht with the help of one of Jed’s old Navy buddies who is now in one of the intelligence services.
To complicate matters, a private security firm run by a man who blames Jed for destroying his military career, seems to be the seller of this still mysterious “whatever.” Jed finds himself the personal target of the security firm as well as of the Russians with on one he can trust but himself, Steph, and his Navy friend.
The Agency by James Phelan is a page turner indeed, sure to be enjoyed by any fan of the genre. The feel for the setting—New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico—is surprising as Mr. Phelan is Australian, but he rarely if ever slips up in his depiction of our southern coast.
The good guys are likeable, although Steph is a little more superhero than is easy to accept, but characters in thrillers are supposed to be superheroes. Why read a book about the guy next door who can’t shoot a Glock, can’t out-think a bad guy, and has a paunch? He is as likely to win over the bad guys as the average woman actually meeting a buffed-out, bare-chested romantic hero in the produce section at the local grocery store.
Kudos to Mr. Phelan for turning out a first-rate thriller.