Check out this book excerpt from “Ring of Fire” by Brad Taylor.

One day in September 2001

Dexter Worthington didn’t set out to murder anyone. Nobody in his position would. He was an up-and-coming small businessman, and killing another human being would definitely be counterproductive to his goals. All he was doing was trying to ensure the growth of his company.

But he killed nonetheless.

Holding the positions of president, CEO, CFO, and every other slot on the board of his firm—which is to say it was barely large enough to be called a firm—he hoped today was the day when he finally broke out. When he caught the whale of a contract that would allow him to quit groveling for scraps at the military industrial complex’s table and start throwing out scraps of his own

The owner of a small aircraft maintenance firm called Icarus Solutions—a name Dexter thought incredibly clever—he had struggled to survive for years, barely earning enough to pay the rent for his hangar at the Sarasota airport. He had lived hand to mouth for so long he was no longer sure what the opposite would be, his privileged upbringing a thing of the past. The pressure had destroyed his marriage—although that had probably been preordained with his choice of bride, who was used to the better things in life. He cursed the misfortune that arrived time and time again, convinced it wasn’t his abilities but unseen forces conspiring to drive him into the grave.

That all changed the day he met the prince.

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Seven months earlier, an aircraft from Saudi Arabia had landed in Sarasota, Florida, and a pompous delegation had exited, running through a spring shower to a caravan of limousines. They’d raced out of the airport without talking to anyone, and then one of the pilots had approached his hangar. He was an Aussie or Kiwi from his accent, and Dexter could tell he was upset, even if he tried not to show it. It turned out the aircraft had a maintenance issue, and nobody within the Sarasota Manatee Airport Authority was willing to help him in the timeline required. The pilot said the “prince” would be in the area for only about four hours, and he wouldn’t be pleased if his plane wasn’t airworthy when he returned.

Dexter had agreed to help, and one thing led to another, until a crown prince of the house of al-Saud was personally thanking him. The entourage then left in the same flurry in which it had arrived, and Dexter found himself standing next to the one Saudi Arabian who’d remained behind. His name was Tariq bin Abdul-Aziz, and he was the reason for the prince’s visit. The son of an incredibly influential Saudi financier, he lived in Sarasota and wanted to learn to fly.

Strangely enough, they’d bonded through that mutual love of aviation, with Tariq showing up for coffee each morning just to watch the airplanes come and go. Somewhere in the conversations, Dexter had mentioned that he had failed to secure a single government contract in the entire time he’d been in business and that Icarus Solutions was on its last legs. Tariq had smiled knowingly, explaining that Dexter didn’t understand how such things worked, and taking the time to show in detail the slimy underbelly of government deal making.

And now Dexter was committed. Driving up to the access control point for Tariq’s neighborhood, he wondered if he’d made a mistake. Didn’t matter, because it was too late to do anything about it now. He gave his name and identification to the guard manning the gate. The guard looked at it, compared it to a board in the shack, then handed him a pass. Dexter put it on the dash, then drove his Honda Civic through the gates of Tariq’s posh neighborhood, hoping the darkness would hide the dents and gouges on the Civic’s battered frame.

Ogling the ostentatious McMansions that lined the road, most garishly illuminated with lighting that should be reserved for the Vegas strip, he felt giddy and more than a little scared.

Either the prince had come through, or he hadn’t. If he had, Dexter would build a McMansion of his own, perhaps in this same neighborhood. If he hadn’t, well, Dexter was finished. His entire business—not to mention every other asset he owned—would be forfeited for the two million dollars he’d borrowed to make the “donation.”

At least he’d never have to pay another blood cent to his shrew of an ex-wife.

Small consolations.

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Two blocks from Tariq bin Abdul-Aziz’s house, he unconsciously slowed, not wanting to hear the decision. Reflecting on what had brought him to this point. Without even realizing it, he drove past the house, seeing one of the four garage doors open, an SUV with the rear hatch raised in front of it, the lights on inside.

He backed up and swung into the driveway, his headlights sweeping across someone with a suitcase. He squinted and saw it was Tariq.

He parked and got out, now considerably worried. “Tariq, hey, what’s up?”

Startled, Tariq whirled around, then grinned sheepishly. “Dexter, you scared the shit out of me.” No sooner had the curse word slipped from his mouth than he was glancing around, looking for his wife.

A small man with an olive complexion and a pencil-thin black mustache, Tariq had initially surprised Dexter with his Western habits, but Dexter had learned he’d spent the majority of his life outside of Saudi Arabia, having attended boarding school in England before college in America. His wife, on the other hand, was devoutly religious and didn’t take kindly to his Western affectations.

When she didn’t appear, Tariq loaded the suitcase into the rear of the SUV. Dexter noticed it was crammed to the windows with all manner of items, increasing his alarm.

He said, “What’s all this? What’s happening?”

Tariq smiled, saying, “I received some wonderful news. I made it into a prestigious graduate program in my home country, but I have to be there the day after tomorrow. We’re flying home.”

Dexter saw Tariq’s wife coming toward them from inside the garage, carrying a baby and wearing a black abaya, her head covered in a colorful hijab.

Confused, Dexter said, “You’re all leaving? For good?”

“Yes. We have tickets for tonight, but I hope to come back in a year or two.”

“What about the house? Your cars? The furniture?”

“It’s my father’s house, actually, and he will deal with it. It’s nothing.”

Finally, Dexter asked the question that mattered the most: “What about me?”

He saw confusion flit across Tariq’s face and realized that two million dollars to this man was the same as a five-dollar bill to Dexter. Something that didn’t really matter.

Dexter said, “We had a deal, right? I created the shell company and provided the required ‘donation.’ I know it’s already been withdrawn. Don’t tell me you guys screwed me over two million dollars. It’s nothing to you, but everything to me.”

Dexter finally saw recognition. Tariq said, “Yes, yes, I’m sorry. I’ve been so preoccupied with packing I forgot.” He placed another suitcase in the back, then turned around, formally straightening up and extending his right hand. Dexter hesitantly took it, waiting.

Tariq said, “Congratulations. After fierce competition and extensive vetting, you beat out thirteen other international companies.” He winked, then said, “Based on my father’s recommendation, the royal family has selected you for the maintenance contract.”

And like that, all the fear was washed away. Once a beggar of scraps, Dexter was now a player. The owner of a multimillion-dollar contract that would guarantee his rise.

Dazed, he started to reply when Tariq said, “I’m happy for you, my friend, but we’re late for our flight. I’m sorry, but I have to go.”

He reached into the SUV and retrieved a briefcase. He pulled out a folder and said, “All of your contacts are in there. Remember, you can’t mention either my father or me. Just contact the people in there and they will do the rest.”

Dexter nodded dumbly. Tariq hugged him, kissing both of his cheeks, then climbed into the driver’s seat. He checked to ensure his wife and baby were settled, then gave Dexter a two-finger salute before driving away.

Dexter turned to watch him go, slowly winding in a circle as the car’s taillights receded around a corner. Dexter was left reflecting on his new fortune. He gripped the folder hard enough to bend it, thinking one thought: Need a new shell company.

He drove his old Civic out of the land of milk and honey, pulling out his cell phone as he did so. He clicked on the speed dial for a contact labeled chip savoy.

There was no way he would let his money-grubbing ex-wife know about his newfound largesse, and to make that happen, he needed Chip.

A fraternity brother from college, Chip had done much, much better than Dexter up until now. Currently a hedge-fund manager on Wall Street, Chip had been the one to walk him through the establishment of the shell company in the Bahamas for the Saudis, and also the one who had fronted the “donation” inside that shell company.

They had been as close as brothers in school, and whenever they were together, the income disparity between the two men disappeared. Chip treated Dexter like he always had—as his own blood—but Dexter knew that at the end of the day, money mattered. Chip was smart and had done the research on the contract. When he’d seen the companies vying for it—all of them the biggest names in the industry—he’d realized the potential for massive profits, given Dexter’s light footprint. He’d fronted Dexter the means for success because he expected a return. And Dexter had no illusions about what would have happened if it had gone south: His “brother” would have taken everything he owned.

But that was water under the proverbial bridge, because it had worked. Now all Dexter needed to do was protect his investment.

The phone rang and rang, then went to voice mail. He left a message, fantasizing about the Playboy Bunny Chip was probably sleeping with at that very moment.

He turned onto Highway 41, going home, and was hit with a logjam of cars. Traffic was always a pain, but not at nine o’clock at night. And then he remembered: The president was visiting Sarasota, doing some goodwill thing at a local elementary school the next day. He’d arrived thirty minutes ago, and his security team had jammed up every major artery.

Dexter muttered in aggravation, then settled in to wait, his twenty-minute drive to a beer now drawn out to at least an hour.

 

“Ring of Fire” by Brad Taylor goes on sale today.